Sunday, December 19, 2010

This is what democracy looks like

People power v money power
What happens when representatives from grassroots movements actually impress their opponents enough to do what Dr. King named as the purpose of direct action, that is, to get to the negotiating table? Do they then play hardball and really teach those corporado government oppressors a thing or two?

In her book Democracy's Edge, Frances Moore Lappé includes a chapter about the Rainforest Action Network. One of RAN's organizers, Michael Brune, talks about his approach to that moment, to that negotiation on behalf of the people and forests of the world.

"I have to forget that I didn't have decades of corporate training or know a lot about the industry.
"All that we really carry into the room is our pure sense--and scientific knowledge--that this is what the world needs.
"We like to go hard on the issues and soft on the people," he added. "We don't approach these negotiations with a desire to win so much as a desire to find a way for [the companies] to win by addressing the earth's needs.
"To most of these executives, it's like, oh, yeah, the environment. Like it's the opera or UNICEF. The environment is just another cause. Most want to be good people, but they're not ready to roll up their sleeves and turn their company around. So our goal is to get the change started. And then keep it going.
"We're not finished with Boise or Home Depot. As good as the new policies are, neither company has yet achieved sustainability."
I explained to Mike my notion that any of us can learn the arts of democracy, such as negotiation, if we put our minds to it. So I was curious about whether he'd trained for these high-stakes encounters.
"Oh, yes, for meetings, I do a fair bit of preparation. There's one guy, Bill Ury, who is a personal hero. He does trainings with us, based on his book Getting to Yes. He teaches us how to use conflict, how to use agitation to get to a point of resolution, even collaboration.
"The biggest challenge, with Boise Cascade or anyone, is really trying to get inside the skin of people on the other side of the table, to deeply understand their perspective. Then we can couch our issues in ways they'll understand; it's what I do with my wife. It's basic human stuff"
(pp. 74-75).

Indeed, why would any movement go to all the laborious trouble of organizing a mass movement, engage in enough mass actions--from petitions to demonstrations to boycotts to letter-writing to civil disobedience--and then make it much less productive by not treating their opponents like human beings?

The oxymoronic imperative of installing democracy at gunpoint is precisely the wrong way to approach it, just as is earning a seat at the table and then engaging in actions and words that undercut good faith negotiation. For a deeper conversation about this, listen and watch one of the Getting to Yes authors, Bill Ury, in an October 2010 Ted Talk. Ury is an anthropologist and in that context studies conflict all over Earth in many cultures, and tries to find those moments when he can act as a mediator or facilitator. He writes about it academically and in the popular press, and is generally acknowledged by the most accomplished practitioners as a wise and dedicated conflict transformer. I like very much that a grassroots leader like Michael Brune of the Rainforest Action Network would use Ury's theories and I think all who practice nonviolent civil society activism might consider that model as one very effective tool in the kit.

Lappé, Frances Moore (2006), Democracy’s edge: Choosing to save our country by bringing democracy to life. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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