Monday, April 26, 2010

Nonviolence and multitasking

We humans don't actually multitask, but we can switch our attention from one task to another with blinding speed, giving the illusion to ourselves and others that we are in fact multitasking. Organizations, however, happily multitask by agreeing that certain goals need to be worked on simultaneously and then assigning each task to different people.

When the United Farm Workers tried to unionize migrant workers they engaged in a massive set of actions and components of the campaign, and they won. Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez (pictured on either side of another activist singing) did enormous numbers of public speaking events. Others were trained in and they spoke also, across the country. As a 17-year-old, I attended one such talk at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis and felt like I had both responsibility and agency by participating in a consumer boycott of grapes and wine. Untold millions of Americans were empowered and in turn empowered the UFW in that way. At the same time, UFW workers were engaged in nonviolent actions and some campaigners were involved in lobbying. UFW lawyers fought in the courtrooms.

And when Infact decided to take on Nestles and get them to stop marketing infant formula to poor mothers whose babies were not going to be helped by switching from breast milk to Nestles products, the campaigners worked on legislative lobbying, public education and a public boycott. This involved research, media activism, grassroots recruitment, and citizen action. They earned an agreement from Nestles, stopping the objectionable behavior (one of which pictured here was hiring actors to play nurses, pretending that the medical community was recommending formula instead of mothers milk).

They did the same thing in a subsequent campaign with GE and its nuclear weapons division, a far more ambitious target. When all the previous networks and skills were brought to bear and carried out on a disciplined long term basis, they succeeded.

Multipronged campaigns are almost always more successful. The key is to interlock them so that they reinforce the message each time, with each person, each action, each bit of outreach. Coordination and emphasis is crucial. What costs, and what pays off? What can you deliver and what do you ask for?

There is no one mastermind of a campaign, though the person with a vision can prompt the collective mastermind. Jody Williams
was heading a nongovernmental Los Angeles-based aid group in 1992 when she was hired to direct the International Campaign to Ban Landmines. She assembled what Lewis Thomas originally called a hive mentality of others and formed the largest coalition of NGOs ever into this campaign, resulting ultimately in the first grassroots campaign that produced an international law. She had more than 1,000 NGOs helping her think about how to move the campaign from problem recognition to proposed solution to success. It was a global effort and it worked and continues to work.

So, even with a good idea and a brilliant leader, many minds and many types of thinking must be coordinated to produce nonviolent victory. Getting stuck in one type of action, a one-pronged campaign, is a recipe for burnout, failure and sad ineffectiveness. More good minds bringing knowledge of legal, legislative, media, educational, direct action elements of a campaign to the collective table are usually how we see a nonviolent win.

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