Culture Changing

Here’s How Desmond Tutu, Elie Wiesel, Paulo Freire, and MLK Approach Neutrality

“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor” – Desmond Tutu

I grew up trying to be neutral so seeing this quote was one of a few that completely altered my life’s direction.

I enjoy being a positive person, but when being a positive person leads me to avoid taking sides or hiding my true values then I am being an individual who supports our current power structures.

Desmond Tutu’s words show us that as our nonprofits, community organizations, and friends increasingly state their desire to be “nonpartisan,” we must remind them that by aiming for neutrality/nonpartisanship they buttress our oppressive systems.

Desmond Tutu, one of the world’s leading moral voices and activist for ending institutionalized oppression, saw first-hand in South Africa how being neutral was a partial reason for the continued strength of the apartheid system.

Freedom fighters struggled for decades before the international community stepped out of their “neutral policies” and denounced South Africa’s apartheid state. Even then, many nations advocated for gradual reforms from the government, instead of supporting the movement demanding the realization of the Freedom Charter (principles for a new just society) and the overthrow of colonialist institutions.

South Africa and the United States reduced their levels of repression only when committed groups and individuals took a strong stand for the values of justice for all people.


Silence and neutrality


“We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented” – Elie Wiesel

Photo: PinkMoose via Flickr (Creative Commons)
Photo: PinkMoose via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Today we are constantly faced with injustice (e.g. school-to-prison-pipeline and exploiting indigenous land to fuel dominant fossil fuel use), though many times we stay silent. Some may be quite vocal about a few issues, but remain neutral in areas “outside their area.”

In particular, I’ve seen so many organizations refuse to do what they think is right, because taking action “might upset the funders.”

Most funders, whether from foundations or government, encourage organizations to work within existing power structures, resist groups that are politically active and mobilize against governmental, financial, or cultural systems (even if they clearly perpetuate disenfranchisement). This suppression of activism occurs because funders are already deeply entrenched in current ways of operating.

If our groups are operating under the barrier that they must be neutral and avoid confronting our existing institutions of power, then don’t you think they are going to have to keep solving the same symptoms of poverty, educational inequality, and health disparity over and over again?


Impossible to actually be neutral


“Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral ” – Paulo Freire

Often in more liberal or community development fields, there is a strong desire to remain impartial and “objective.” However, in doing so they “side with the powerful.”

While having a desire for collaboration, consensus, and community is not bad necessarily, we have to keep in mind that these ideals can expand the reach of injustice.

For example, dominant male culture promotes the expectation that men should ignore sexism and just accept that “boys will be boys.” This passive bystander approach to sexism, is one of the main contributors to our extremely high rate of sexual violence.

By saying one is “not going to take sides” and just remain on the sidelines (e.g. allowing someone to blame the victim), these individuals provide their tacit acceptance.

So how we change this culture of neutrality?


Building a culture of active response to injustice


“The hottest place in Hell is reserved for those who remain neutral in times of great moral conflict…[an individual] who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it” – Martin Luther King Jr.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s quote provides another voice that starkly outlines the damage caused by neutrality, but it also leads to one of the primary ways we can build a culture of active response to injustice.

Speak out against any and all injustice, both large and small. Whether you witness an act of interpersonal oppression (e.g. homophobic comments) or you see a trend of institutionalized oppression (e.g. the media and politicians correlating those with mental health issues and violence), try to find ways to illuminate darkness.

Share the voices of those committed to exposing injustice. If you are not ready to be as vocal as you wish, highlighting the thoughts and actions of those dedicated to denouncing injustice (e.g. Angry Asian Man and Feministing) is a great way to build your own courage (it certainly helped me!).

Analyze areas of your organization and life to see where you have remained neutral, in order to decide how you will become active against oppression. I know I rarely, if at all, thought about where I was neutral since it was so ingrained in my every behavior. Thus, you may need to take a close look at where you are quiet and where you have started to express yourself.

Agitate for increasing how your organization (and even yourself) encourages an environment of active responses to injustice. Identity how you can provide training, change policies, and lead by example.

Desmond Tutu, Elie Wiesel, Paulo Freire, and Martin Luther King Jr., provide a clear moral and strategic outlook at how we can approach neutrality. Their lives show that taking a stand is challenging, but is essential to dismantling injustice. Luckily, we have the opportunity to learn from their experiences.

Have thoughts or examples on other ways to resist neutrality? Post your thoughts on Organizing Change’s Facebook page!


How to Be Proactive and Win Campaigns

Have you ever got so caught up in the momentum of a campaign that you feel like there’s barely enough time to finish the next task?

If you’re like many organizers, including myself, it can be easy to just focus on the immediate next step.

I know I often convince myself that “I’ve planned everything out.”

Unfortunately, that’s not always the case.

With the rush of activity that comes with a vibrant campaign, there are a lot of reasons why the details take precedence. However, I want to look at what happens when we act proactively, instead of reactively.


The incredible heights of proactivity and the dangers of a narrow focus


The Association of Community Organization for Reform Now (ACORN) serves as a powerful dual reminder for the benefits of proactivity and the punishment for not looking ahead.

ACORN, one of the most influential and empowering anti-poverty organizations in the U.S.’s history, fought tirelessly for a range of social justice issues (e.g. affordable housing, workers’ rights, living wages, livable neighborhoods, etc.)

Part of ACORN’s early strength came from the fact that it almost never let up, and always sought new angles to push forward its campaigns.

ACORN’s ever-amplifying strategies and tactics kept opponents on their toes, which ACORN made tougher by frequently anticipating their foes’ next moves.

This proactive approach to campaigns won ACORN many victories.

However, high-profile successes also brought high-profile attacks.

ACORN’s highly-effective campaigns to empower low-income populations in the democratic process led to a steady increase in backlash from those who would rather not see elevated voter turnout from impoverished communities.

As John Atlas writes in Seeds of Change, although ACORN’s voter registration quality-control methods (e.g. flagging suspicious/problematic registration cards, paying staff by the hour and not by the # of registration cards, and confirming cards by calling the listed number) were some of the most stringent in the nation, ACORN still couldn’t escape political attacks.

Even though the mainstream media and political commentators continually accused ACORN of “voter fraud,” John Atlas notes “Not one U.S. attorney found any evidence of an illegal vote cast and counted because of registration by ACORN and those working for it.”

After unrelenting pressure, due to a few poor decisions (e.g. prioritizing all organizing work while neglecting accounting practices), ACORN eventually ceased operations and created a void so profound that countless groups immediately committed to filling the gap left by ACORN.

While I have learned many lessons from ACORN, one of the most important is to prepare for criticism and look ahead to potential challenges.

If ACORN had applied its skills to proactive organizing work to being just as proactive at accounting and media work, then ACORN would have had a much better chance at resisting its opponents.


Principles/Elements of Proactive Campaigns


Being proactive is crucial not only for organizations, but also for the individuals carrying out a campaign. Below I’ve written out some key ways to maintain a forward-moving emphasis.

Being proactive should be all-year long – don’t just have a meeting, plan possible outcomes, and then rest on what you’ve made. Consider ways to improve your work, then think again and improve again.

Consider all possible scenarios (good or bad) that could influence the success of your campaign – remember ACORN’s example! If you’ve thought critically about challenges and how to meet them, then you’ll be in a much better place then if you were unprepared.

Look beyond your day-to-day task list – when thinking about what you need to get done today, also think about what you could do this month/year. I try to set aside at least 30 minutes to an hour a week to close my TODO list and think what else I could be doing. I often find something valuable to support my work.

Keep track of what you need to accomplish in the mid to long-term – even if you cannot get to everything right now, at least have a place to store future ideas so that way you can pick them out when the time is right.

Be proactive in all areas of the campaign, not just a few – ACORN focused on its organizing work and neglected its media and accounting work, which taught me to look beyond just the work that I enjoyed the most.

Consider where you’re at and what else you could be doing now or in the near future – whether you’re in a strategy session, or pondering proactive dreams at your desk, there are plenty of places to analyze how to act differently.

If you see an issue take care of it right away! – If you have the skills to take care of something, don’t wait, just respond to the issue right then.

Plan out ways for your campaign to be proactive over the course of its work – making a plan for how you’ll be proactive in your campaign, may just be one of the most proactive steps you could take!

Evaluate if your campaign is “meeting the need” – if there are areas that are not being met yet, figure out how you can resolve them.

As I realized from ACORN’s experiences, being proactive is never ending.

Now I try to avoid getting caught in a cycle of day-to-day tasks and instead aim to keep finding ways to think ahead.

Got other ideas for being proactive? Then leave a comment and share your experience!