There's something happening here

From #BlackLivesMatter... to global transformation?

I’m struggling to put into words everything I’m feeling right now, and recognizing the inadequacy of our collective ability to make sense of a moment whose speed and breadth continues to overwhelm our capacity for understanding.

In the week since I last wrote, two things have become clear (to me, anyway):

1) This is a watershed moment. Like other powerful movements (and collective events, like COVID or 9/11) the killing of George Floyd is a bright dividing line between eras.

2) We’re in uncharted waters. Though this moment owes a profound debt to moments and movements that have laid the foundation (principally the Movement for Black Lives here in the U.S.), it is also taking place in a fundamentally different moment. Yes there are things we can and should learn from history… but we’re also making history in real time.

To these I would offer a third observation from my particular vantage point: the trepidation I felt last week about what the dominant narrative would be around the protests has given way to relief and even excitement. It seems clear at this point that a deep and profound solidarity — deeper than anything I’ve experienced in my 20+ years as a student of social movements — is the glue holding these protests together, and driving their spread. Yes people are rightfully angry, and grieving. But they’re also coming together, and demanding better. I got chills this morning as I woke up on a rainy day in Seattle to scroll my Twitter feed to images of hundreds of thousands gathering around the world, from Philadelphia, to Berlin, to Bristol, and beyond. It’s inspiring. I mean, just look at Berlin. Berlin!

I want to use this post to share a little about how I’m making sense of this moment, and what it means for what comes next.

TL;DR: This feels to me like a set of movements that are finding in real time that sweet spot between love and anger that is the magic sauce of successful social movements (and a subject I’ve returned to repeatedly in this newsletter). They are also offering a powerful vision anchored in radical imagination that can translate our anger into possibility; these movements offer a liberatory vision for action.

Access to the universal is always through the particular

In the early days following the killing of George Floyd, many people — myself included — struggled to understand what felt different about this one. Anyone who has a pulse in America has seen the grim reality of police violence against black people. Yes, it followed on the heels of Ahmaud Arbery’s much-publicized modern-day lynching, and the viral clip of a white woman threatening police violence against another innocent black man in Central Park (and also Breonna Taylor’s as-yet-not-widely-covered murder by police in her own home). But as the protest jumped borders and popped up in Europe, then Asia, we found ourselves asking: what is it about the George Floyd killing that struck a nerve?

As someone whose mind always trends toward the macro, toward patterns and systems at scale (I’m an off-the-charts NT on the Myers-Briggs), I’ve always struggled with this core insight. Yet it struck me with the force of truth when Father Richard Rohr said it on a podcast (maybe this one?): we can only access the universal through the particular. And it came up again for me listening to this exchange between Gibran Rivera and Cyndi Suarez:

You can go from personal to universal, but not the other way around.

As meaning-making creatures, humans are uniquely capable of finding resonance in the specific unique experience of another person: this is the power of story… and imagery. Rohr channels Jung to observe:

Transformation only happens in the presence of story, myth, and image, not mere mental concepts. A great story pulls you inside of a universal story, and it lodges in the unconscious.

Everyone is able to connect to the particular of George Floyd’s story: whether with the experience of being under the knee, of the anguished powerlessness of the bystanders pleading for help, of the fellow officers callously looking on, or even with the killer himself, seemingly impervious to the plaintive cries of a fellow human. Or maybe all of those things. In Seattle George Floyd might be Chance Dunlap, or Leonard Thomas. In Louisville he might be Breonna Taylor, or David McAtee. In Paris he might be Adama Traoré. How we tell that story, and how we make sense of it, is the shaping of narrative. In her TED Talk, Lori Gottlieb quotes Jerome Bruner to remind us:

To tell a story is, inescapably, to take a moral stance.

Toward a tipping point

For years I’ve been fascinated by Maria Stephan’s pioneering research on “the 3.5%" rule,” the seemingly magic number of people who need to be involved in a campaign before that campaign succeeds (her research focused primarily on campaigns for regime change, like Mubarak in Egypt, or Milosevic in Serbia, e.g.). Stephan’s research was in my head this week as I found myself listening to a 90-minute podcast featuring Cass Sunstein, author of How Change Happens.

He offers an empirically grounded framework for understanding that mysterious question: what makes a movement take off? Engaging with Sunstein’s work in the context of the 3.5% rule and this moment of global uprising illuminates for me two key factors that I think are currently at play:

The first is that when norms start to collapse, people are unleashed, in the sense that they feel free to reveal what they believe and prefer, to disclose their experiences, and to talk and act as they wish… The second is that revisions of norms can construct preferences and values. New norms, and laws that entrench or fortify them, can give rise to beliefs, preferences, and values that did not exist before. No one is unleashed. People are changed. 

I think we’re seeing that play out in real time. It’s been fascinating watching my Facebook feed (like my life generally, overwhelmingly white, educated, progressive) respond to this moment. People who have believed that #BlackLivesMatter are now feeling empowered to say so. AND, people who initially reacted to Trayvon Martin or Michael Brown with some skepticism (he said she said) are actually changing their views (or at least their publicly shared views!) in real time. This is also true for black people and people of color more broadly, who are now feeling emboldened to speak their truths more publicly, including in their workplaces… and organizations are feeling pressure to take a stand.

The path to action: EAST

Sunstein also highlights work from Behavioral Insights, recommending a simple mnemonic device to help increase the chances that people join a movement:

Easy: I think this is one of the great achievements of racial justice movements in particular over the last few years: lowering the barrier to entry. You don’t have to be perfect, because no one is: you do have to be willing to try. Just showing up is a great way to start (what one of the early anti-racist organizations for white people starts from this place: Showing Up for Racial Justice).

Attractive: Another great achievement in recent years is rediscovering the power of joy. Books like adrienne maree brown’s Pleasure Activism are a welcome antidote to burnout culture, and rightly re-center our movements on living into the world we want: beloved community, right here, right now. Even protests founded in grief and anger are creating spaces for play, for dance, for improvisation, for connection… for joy.

Social: We are relational creatures, and no one can transform on their own. The single greatest predictor of whether someone joins a movement: whether they know someone who’s involved (and whether that person asks them to join). Sunstein offers a fascinating piece of research looking at the “first follower” phenomenon: some people are moved to action by almost anything; others have a much higher threshold before they feel emboldened to take that first step. This is the cascade effect: nothing attracts a crowd like a crowd.

Timely: Get people at the right time. After three months of isolation, during a pandemic that has been grossly mismanaged by the federal government and that disproportionately impacts marginalized communities… black people in particular but people generally — especially unemployed youth with little to lose — were ready to take to the streets. This is the power of a timely call to action.

Not seeing, not feeling, not acting

But it’s not just about knowing and acting. Over the last three months I’ve been participating in the Gaia Journey led by Otto Scharmer’s team at the Presencing Institute. I have a ton of respect for their work, and this week’s session was really powerful. In it Otto offered a way to understand this moment of global uprising for #BlackLivesMatter that I found really helpful. He identified these three barriers to action.

Not seeing: I’m reminded here of the quote often attributed to Henri Bergson: “The eye sees only what the mind is prepared to comprehend.” Or if you prefer, Upton Sinclair’s famous line, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” In the context of anti-black police violence in America, it seems hard NOT to see… yet there are lots of reasons people don’t (motivated reasoning, willful inattention, even some fascinating new neuroscience research about the relationship between sight and brain cognition, etc.) But it’s getting harder not to see in an era of viral videos while stuck at home.

Not feeling: Ah, this one is tough. One of the ways white supremacy (and patriarchy, and capitalism) works is by disconnecting us from our feelings and our bodily sensations. Humans have a really hard time watching other people suffer: we’re wired for empathy. The only way to do it is to somehow create distance between you and the other person: john powell calls this “othering.” It’s the first necessary step to being able to cause harm. Most of us are deeply out of practice with really feeling: not just emotions, but in our bodies, feeling the visceral reaction of pain and trauma.

It’s something I’ve been intentionally working on for a couple years now, and it’s both super hard and incredibly enlightening. I find myself noticing how often I clench my jaw, how much tension I carry in my shoulders/neck, how often I feel nervous anxiety in my chest… I’m feeling all of those things right now as I type, wading into this subject matter. But people increasingly want to feel. We’re tired of being disconnected from ourselves and each other. Especially in a COVID moment, we are desperate for connection, and touch. We are trying to become more embodied.

Not acting: As a person raised in dominant culture, I’ve always been really interested in this one: the gap between thought and action. I’ve recently found myself at a surprising place. I used to think there was a huge barrier to getting people to act upon new knowledge… and of course, there still is. But I’m increasingly coming to believe that re-introducing the middle element of feeling actually reduces that barrier. This is true for me personally and anecdotally true for many joining the protests: once you know, and let yourself feel… you feel compelled to act. It’s actually difficult not to: it requires un-knowing, or de-sensing (what Otto calls “absencing”). I’ve queued this clip from Friday’s session to the relevant section, about a 5 minute clip in case you want to hear him walk through the framework:

Cultivating our sixth sense

One of the beautiful contributions of social movements led by people of color and other marginalized people in recent years is the insistence on paying attention to other ways of knowing. Many indigenous and spiritual traditions talk about wholeness and integration; in Friday’s Gaia presentation Melanie Goodchild named mental, physical, spiritual, and emotional ways of feeling/knowing. It occurs to me that our notion of the “5 senses” is so limiting. None speak to our emotional state, none to our spiritual connectedness or insights, none to our physical sensations and embodiment (which of our five senses alerts us to tightness in our chest, or jaw?)

Honestly, when I really get into what feels different about this moment, this is it. We are being called to “sense” differently… and we are answering. This is the work of mindfulness, of yoga, of meditation, of somatics. In a Zoom call a couple weeks ago with fellow participants in the Embodied Leadership somatics course I took with the Strozzi Institute, one had this line that really resonated with me. She said:

I’m coming back to myself and coming more fully into myself at the same time.

Yes. Like Sunstein noted: we are both recognizing what we’ve always known (often/usually at a non-cognitive level), and moving toward our aspirational selves at the same time. We are becoming. This has been for me one of the most surprising and illuminating insights of my work looking into systems of patriarchy and white supremacy: a core act of dismantling these systems of oppression is becoming more embodied, more attuned and present to ourselves and what we’re feeling… in order that we can become more present for others. I just finished Krista Tippett’s gorgeous interview with Resmaa Menakem, who’s work on intergenerational racialized trauma is so perfectly suited to this moment. This:

While we see anger and violence in the streets of our country, the real battlefield is inside our bodies.

Seen in that light, the metaphor of “waking up” popularized through “woke culture” isn’t quite right. That metaphor individuates what is a collective phenomenon: a process of socialization that is far larger than any individual. Rather, I experience this moment as a recognition of our collective gas-lighting, and a refusal to tolerate it any longer. We weren’t asleep: we were lied to, to the point that we disbelieved our own experience of reality. Now that we can see what we’ve always “known,” there’s no going back. You can’t put the genie back in the bottle, and we don’t want to. I also like Julie Pham’s reminder that this is a journey, not a destination. The awake/asleep binary is too rigid: rather, we are collectively awakening… an inherently relational process. As she eloquently wrote:

Injustices are best overcome by building a greater sense of belonging, grounded in relationship-building.

In that spirit, I’m pleased to announce the next in our ongoing series Conversations on Transformation, to be held June 15th @ 8:30am Pacific on the idea/importance of Reconnecting with the Sacred; you can register here if it’s of interest.

The power of imagination

Movement leaders have been returning in recent years to science fiction, and in particular to Afro-futurism, precisely because of the power of radical imagination and its importance in bringing about the change we need. As George Monbiot notes:

Political failure is at heart a failure of imagination.

Here’s science fiction writer Ursula Le Guin:

We will not know our own injustice if we cannot imagine justice. We will not be free if we do not imagine freedom…

But she recognizes the privilege of her own position, the ability, time, and space to exercise her imagination. She reminds us:

We cannot demand that anyone try to attain justice and freedom who has not had a chance to imagine them as attainable.

With regard to the current moment, it seems to me that two things happened. First, movements over the last several years — none more boldly in my view than the prison abolition movement — have engaged intentionally in the practical exercise of building power from a place of radical imagination. Second, COVID arrived and proved that anything is possible (cash grants to the people? Sure! Eviction moratorium? Fine!) With the Overton Window blown open… movement leaders are stepping into the void and offering stories, proposals, and visions that increasingly make sense. Not just cognitive sense, but felt sense.

Nine months ago I contended that the autumn of 2019 was the most active period of mass protest in human history. After a global pause due to the most deadly pandemic in a century (which is still very much present among us!), people have returned to the streets. As our local Black Lives Matter chapter said here in Seattle:

Anti-blackness is a greater threat to our survival, and racism in itself is its own pandemic. It’s killing us. We’re fighting to survive and thrive.

And really… aren’t we all? Black people have four hundred years of oppression at the hands of an inhumane system here in the U.S., so it should be no surprise that they are leading this movement. What’s encouraging is that so many others are hearing in their particular stories a universal yearning for something better. The last word here to Gloria Anzaldúa, whose words seem so resonant and prophetic in this moment:

Empowerment comes from ideas—our revolution is fought with concepts, not with guns, and it is fueled by vision. By focusing on what we want to happen we change the present. The healing images and narratives we imagine will eventually materialize.