Category Archives: Activism

The Leaderless Need Leaders, and Leaders Need the Leaderless

What started as the “Arab Spring” has transitioned and transformed – like seasons– to the “American Autumn”, and now perhaps something else entirely. Countless pundits, experts, and academics have opined on what it is, whether it is good or bad, successful or unsuccessful, or something unique or a continuation of the past. But every article, blog, TV plug, or radio interview seem unable to explain this global protest phenomenon with certainty and in its entirety. It may be because that participants in these movements are experimenting with new ways to organize, though they may not be aware of it themselves. But for these movements to be successful, they will need a little help from their friends (pun intended)—practitioners in the field of conflict.

What mainstream media did cover about these new social movements is the seemingly unorganized demonstration over a very palpable frustration. Such movements in the past, though having participants from a large number of “unaffiliated”, had activists that were part of formally structured and hierarchical organizations to provide a voice for the voiceless and organize their communities to become active, in which they would articulate demands through various communication mediums.

Social media and mobile telephony – unlike communication tools in the past like TV/Radio, cassette tapes, and, yes, the internet (we are that old) – in new social movements has for the most part freed the rigid categories of producer and consumer of media and information.  The past required formally structured organizations and/or groups with clear roles and strategies to get the information out for consumption to the public, but today anybody can be a producer and consumer of information. This loosens (though does not dismiss) the need for formal organizations to provide a voice for the voiceless.

The leaderless Occupy movements that are taking place around the world is this theory manifested. Individual active participants in the movement become the producer, interpreter, filter, and consumer of information, and exchange ideas – in an antiquated Athenian democracy sort of way – to come up with the demands they want to protest for. However, articulating and deciding how a proper economic system should function is a lot harder than demanding the ouster of a leader like their Arab counterparts.

Demanding a leader to step down is not nuanced, nor is it subject to statistics, figures, or theory. It is clear and emotional enough to bring many groups together. In fact, demanding a leader to step down requires less (not none) organizational or community development to drive it in comparison to more abstract concepts such as economic policy or system design. However, even in cases were the demands were clear, like the case in Tunisia and Egypt, the less formally organized students – in comparison to their elite or Islamist counterparts –lost out to the quick turnaround in elections that followed.

What this means for the conflict community is that now, more than ever, community and organizational development through techniques and/or skills in facilitation, dialogue, and problem solving in conflict practice are needed. The advantage of formal organizations is that the leaders formulate and articulate demands, but in leaderless movements that is just moot. With proper training in dialogue and conflict management, participants of leaderless movements can remain “leaderless”, while making adequate progress in formulating and articulating demands.

I do not suggest that remaining leaderless is better than being formally organized or vice versa, but perhaps they reinforce each other in a truly positive direction. In other words, the unaffiliated – usually the common denizen – have been unable to contribute, and has caused societies to simply take down one leader for a formally organized other. Therefore, the leaderless need leaders, and leaders need the leaderless.

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A couple weekends ago, I attended a workshop and discussion on citizen activism by David LaMotte. David, a musician and humanitarian activist, began the workshop with the story of Rosa Parks. He quickly went over the fateful day that made Rosa Parks an icon for the civil rights movement, but this is not the story that was important to him. It was the timeline before and after the snapshot in history that he found most intriguing. Before: Rosa Parks was a twelve year member and secretary of the NAACP. Prior to her joining the NAACP, she was married to Raymond Parks–a long-time member of the NAACP. Prior to Rosa and Raymond dating, someone introduced Raymond to the NAACP. The individual who introduced Raymond to the NAACP is, unfortunately, lost in history, but as LaMotte unfolded the timeline, everyone in the workshop silently agreed this unknown figure – active in the NAACP and brought his or her activism to Raymond – changed the world.

Equally important are the events that followed Rosa Parks’ flashpoint in history. The day after Rosa Parks’ arrest, 51 ministers came together in a Montgomery, Alabama church basement to discuss how they should proceed in regards to  Parks’ arrest. After intense deliberation, the group of ministers decided that they would pursue Parks stance against injustice, which sparked America’s Civil Rights Movement. The individual whom the ministers agreed should take the lead and be the face of this movement because he was a newcomer to the city, was Martin Luther King, Jr. The deliberation and consensual agreement of these 51 mostly unknown ministers, in essence, catapulted the career and heroism of one the world’s greatest historical icons.

The conclusion I drew from LaMotte’s vignette was the enormous power individual’s have when they engage in activism, sparking participation, unabashed story telling, and/or following a purpose they believe in. However, many pull back from “being active”. Since acknowledgement is rarely immediate or beyond the patience of most people (if acknowledgement is even given within one’s lifetime, which is not always the case), it does not fulfill their “heroic mythologies”. Therefore, such pursuits are deemed naive and dismissed as “too ideological”, which LaMotte points out is an irony, for any goal in any business, operation, venture is an ideal that one attempts to strive to.

Listening to LaMotte convey his series of vignettes and discuss the very idea of “activism”, I began reflecting upon my intentions of joining a program like conflict analysis and resolution. Reflecting honestly, I realized that I truly do have an honest motivation in helping others, but I also do want to be lauded for my work. I am not the only one, otherwise Mary Shelley would not have written the dreaming Henry Clerval the way she did. Yet, for the last year and half of being in the program, I was upset in myself for feeling the way I did. I cannot help but dream of ideals and ideas of what I want to do and where I want to be. However, if there is anything that I learned from the field of conflict analysis and resolution, is that the thoughts, intentions, and actions of men and women are very complex. My intentions are not purely selfish, nor are they purely altruistic. They are somewhere in between and this is what makes me human. LaMotte’s talk helped me come to terms with this, but I also must be willing to be honest and critical about myself. However, criticism has its limits as well if it is going to shackle my potential to act or be creative.

The world needs heroes. They serve a purpose in inspiring people. However, we must remain cognizant that they are human, just like you, me, Raymond Parks, and the 51 ministers that change(d) history. Therefore, being active and pursuing things like peace, resolution, or reconciliation are all laudable, realistic goals, for it takes regular people – who are one in same as heroes – to pursue them. No one else can.

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