Navajo women and girls win a voice in community health. Citizens rewrite the Irish constitution after the trauma of the 2008 crash of the Celtic Tiger. Ex-offenders help ex-offenders to help the government reduce re-offending. Waste pickers helping the government ministers write laws, that will help them enter the formal economy as recyclers, and play their role on Peru's path to a zero-waste society. Sefton invests in its citizens to help each other thrive. Slum dwellers in Caracas organize to develop their community.
The big winner in all these stories is democracy. It gets stronger when more people vote, participate in government, access quality community services, make peace, build their lives, share their views, help create meaningful laws, invent creative ways to tackle problems. It becomes more resilient to attempts to divide communities.
Until I began working in America, I had never heard the expression 'win'. And suddenly, everyone seemed to be chasing these wins. Non-profits, think-tanks, activists, political parties, community organizers. I soon realized what a win is. You have a win, when you get something your way. A candidate you backed gets elected into office? Win. The New York Times mentions your talking point? Win. The government passes a law you want? Win. Your protégé gets into a position of power? Win. Left or right, everyone wants their wins.
Wins always rubbed me the wrong way, and writing this chapter helped me better understand why. The logic of wins is, that you accumulate them, on your path to get what you want. Wins are like conquered territories. Battles won. The victories you accumulate in a war. Investors, funders, political parties, and philanthropists who back these organizations and movements place their bets accordingly: if you are good at winning, we back you. It divides the universe into zeros and ones. Nothing else matters.
I got my first lesson in the tactics of getting 'wins' in 2009. Liza had joined us from Chicago as an intern in Barcelona. She just finished volunteering for the Obama 2008 campaign. I loved listening to her stories about the campaign machinery: canvassing homes, going from door to door. The script was extraordinary. It was stripped down, designed to get wins, and went something like this:
2. Ask if they plan to vote Obama,
3.1. "Yes", take note, make sure they know how to vote, and move on;
3.2. "Not sure", talk to them, ask again, move on;
3.3. "No", don't waste time, move on.
Creating the Right Kind of #Win Society
It was magical, so efficient! You talk only to those who are willing to agree, don't waste a calorie on the others. It's just, that I kept thinking about the others. I found the idea so alien, to walk around a neighborhood, and not talk to everyone. What kind of community was that? Years later, I learned the same process again. This time it was sales people from successful technology companies who taught me how they work through their leads. Don't waste time with people who don't want to buy now. Move on to the next. Wins, I feared, were feeding a mindset that put the quick win over all else. Including, what others might lose when you win.
Wins, I feared, were feeding a mindset that put the quick win over all else. Including, what others might lose when you win.
Don't get me wrong, I love the fact that Denisa won the junk food tax (see Story #16), and that Katherine won marriage equality (see Story #17). But more importantly, I loved how they won. Denisa is a member of the community she serves. There is no point in collecting wins that don't nurture her community as a whole. She fights to overcome division. Families found out why their children suffered diabetes. Then they connected to see how their healthy traditions had been lost. They learned about the lost culture of food, that united their community. It wasn't just a matter of whether you like to eat junk food, but how food with no nutritional value came to be the only option available. No experts brought the idea of putting a tax on junk food to the community. Families developed the idea, as a way to restore their health and traditions. For Denisa, a win is only good when it builds trust in the community. She would trade trust for wins, any day.
The Real Win is Buried in the Human Mess
This kind of slowness is a sign of care, of true inclusion, of not being afraid to get involved with humans. It is the kind of human mess that engineers and venture capitalists would hate. But it works. (Story #4)
The human mess. Denisa, Albina, Katherine, Jane, Mark... they all thrive on it. It sparks their social imagination. It fuels their long journeys to change. Whereas for people in power, this human mess is a pain. Why bother nurturing relationships and communities, when you can divide the whole, and collect your wins? And division works wonders. It was Richard Nixon, in his presidential campaign, who first invented the idea of using abortion as a divisive idea to drive a wedge between socially conservative democrats and their party. It was an invented division. People hadn't cared to let it define their affiliations until it became a quick fix to win power. It worked. And strategist went on to push it to an absurd extreme that divides communities across the nation. As a result, it tops the 'wins' list of organizations on all sides of the battle. Only: this quick fix is toxic, like a nuclear bomb, causing irreparable harm to our communities and relationships.
Social Imagination, Our Best Defense
Denisa's work is all about community health. And, it improves democracy. Her movement holds leaders accountable, gives women and girls a voice, and feeds brilliant new policy ideas like the junk food tax into the Tribal Council. Relationships build resilience in the community, against attempts to divide people. Denisa is so central because she dives right into the human mess. She knows her community, takes time to listen, helps out. All this builds trust. Trust opens hearts and minds, and allows her to bring new knowledge to the community. Over time, creative new ideas for the future emerge. My good friend David Lubell, a seasoned activist and movement builder, puts it like this: "Community organizing is wonderful. But it becomes magic when, instead of simply insisting on a single issue, it sparks collective creativity." Social imagination, our best defense against divisive power politics.
"Community organizing is awesome. But it is magic when, instead of simply insisting on a single issue, it sparks collective creativity."
Bury the Tiger
If Denisa is building the defenses against division, the story of Ireland tells us about how leaders can withstand the temptations of divisive politics in the first place. The Celtic Tiger, Ireland's bet to chase growth at all costs in the 1990's, is central to understanding the story. People hoped that the Fast Lane could outpace their more profound problems. With the 2008 financial crisis, the gamble ended in tears of shame, humiliation, and suffering. Grappling with the devastating reality of a broken economy, severe inequality, and abuse by the church, people realized that they had no place to go back to.
So, they opened up to new ideas. After economists had so evidently led the country astray, they turned to practitioners from the Slow Lane. People like Katherine Zappone, and Professor Jane Suiter wanted to slow things down, listen, and build bridges. It really is an extraordinary turn of events, when you think about it. Katherine was a gay theologian, professor, feminist, social entrepreneur, and minister serving in a conservative cabinet. Unafraid of talking theology, and deeply rooted in activism, she offered a moral compass. She seemed to embody a way forward for Ireland.
It is fair to say that going slow proved the faster way to update the constitution.
Jane, and her network of academics, offered a new tool: the citizen assembly. It wasn't a fix to democracy, but an experimental vehicle that would be quick to deploy. It represented the five Slow Lane Principles: #1 It promised to listen to everyone, selecting people at random from all over Ireland; #2 It promised to hold the urgency, by letting the assembly take its time to deliberate complex issues. #3 It promised to share the agency, by letting the assembly develop new proposals. #4 It promised to heal democracy, by replacing divisive political campaigning with nuanced deliberation among ordinary people. #5 It encouraged curiosity, by guiding members of the assembly through the stages of unlearning, seeking inspiration from experts and activists, and letting new ideas emerge. It is fair to say that going slow proved the faster way to update the constitution.
The Wins We Want
Wins aren't all bad, and the Slow Lane loves a good win. Done right, such wins allow everyone to experience a better future. Become less afraid of change. Citizen assemblies in Ireland did just that. As did the junk food tax in Navajo Nation, the Prison Council in Pentonville Prison (see Story #1), or the dozens of Peruvian municipalities that contracted recyclers to manage municipal waste before the Ley del Recyclador was adopted (see Story #5). These wins were profoundly different in three ways from the canvassing Lisa described. First, instead of putting people on the spot to say 'yes' or 'no', they invited them to become part of creating a new answer, to join the magic happen. Second, they considered everyone a member of the community, instead of creating an 'us' vs 'them' logic. Third, they never stopped the conversation, knowing that their neighbor would always be there, in the community. And that one day, they would join.
This brings our chapter on healing democracy to a close. In my next post, we will dive into the question of scale. How big is the problem or the solution? Is bigger better, or deeper bigger? We will start with a simple question. How big is the Slow Lane?