“What is to be done?” I think about this question a lot. Not what is to be said, but done. A lot of writing about the contemporary world focuses on telling us how bad a problem is, or who’s at fault. OK, yes: the world is broken, politicians are often corrupted, the crises of inequality, racism and climate are intensifying. But what is to be done about that? Changing consciousness is indeed part of changing the world, but movements for change have never succeeded solely by changing consciousness, or insisting that everyone share the same world view before we act together.
People are messy, imperfect, confused, distracted and often overworked. And yet, we have often managed to come together in effective ways to enact real change. Always, at the core of that process of effective change is one word: organizing, the process by which people turn the resources they have into the power they need to make the change they want. Movements for change do not happen spontaneously; they are organized. Other things that look like movements, like protests or popular hashtags, do often happen spontaneously, but they almost always fail.
And being organized isn’t a guarantee of success. Organizations have many of their own challenges and pitfalls. Many develop into bureaucracies that move slowly and stifle creativity. Many become more focused on sustaining themselves as well-known brands rather than solving the problem they were created to address. Many struggle for resources like funding and attention, or twist themselves into pretzels to satisfy funders or ride passing fads. It’s easy to fall into despair or cynicism about how hard it is to effect change. Though, as a dear organizer friend of mine liked to say, if it was easy, this would have been done already.
I’ve been a writer and organizer my whole adult life. I started out in the early 1980s writing for magazines like The Progressive, The Nation and Middle East Report about topics that I was involved in politically, like nuclear disarmament and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. During the 13 years that I worked for The Nation as an editor, my interests broadened and shifted towards domestic politics, which I thought more progress could be made (ha!). In the 1990s, I dove deep into the world outside the two-party framework that dominates America, first with a quarterly newsletter…