Monthly Archives: March 2008

Dealing with Generation Change

Among the questions that face ICPJ is how we should deal with generation changes. In particular, ICPJ faces three questions about recruiting the next generation of activists:

  1. Should we intentionally focus on trying to recruit, train, and engage a younger crop of activists? (For those of you who don’t know, ICPJ’s membership tends toward the older edge of the age spectrum.)
  2. If so how do we go about that recruitment?
  3. Finally, are we willing to make the changes necessary to recruit younger activists?

I often hear people assert the need to get more young people involved. What I don’t hear is a willingness to move the table so we can be welcoming to them.  Are we willing to:

  • give up meeting in church basements;
  • spend the extra time to recruit childcare volunteers for every meeting and event;
  • have more fun;
  • spend less time in meetings in  chatter;
  • spend more time in meetings in  chatter;
  • put more energy into online outreach;
  • make it easier for time and attention-starved people to get involved;
  • do more outlandish,  civil-disobedience type events; or
  • give up lecturing and telling people how to organize?

These are just some examples. I don’t know what would have to change to be a more welcoming environment for younger activists. I do know that we will need to change.

Jesus taught that you don’t pour new wine into old wineskins (Mat 9:17). If ICPJ is going to welcome the next generation of peace and justice activists into our midsts, we will need to renew ourselves. We will need to change.

Are we willing?

Bringing to the table or moving the table

Organizers, marketers, and others often say “we need to get [insert group name here] around the table.”

They assert that they need lawyers, people of color, youth, retirees, Muslims, atheists, farmers, CEOs, midwives, three-toed gnomes, or whatever, and then go off in to recruit that constituency.

Often this is well intentioned. Sometimes it is successful. And indeed, it is an important part of  making our community institutions more representative and accountable.

But it isn’t always enough to drag people “to the table.”

Sometimes you have to move the table to them!

It isn’t enough to tell a vulnerable or oppressed community, “come over here,” when “coming over here” means leaving the security of an established community to enter a setting that is unknown and possibly hostile.

This is a common barrier in white anti-racist work. Liberal whites will say, with every good intention, “our door is open, we just don’t understand why they won’t join us.” Of course, there are valid reasons why people of color would be skeptical. Many people of color have seen to many cases where they have been used as props to make white people feel good, where they have been forced to explain issues of diversity of racial justice, or where their experiences of racism have been dismissed.

Even if your group is different, they have a reason to be skeptical.

ICPJ has a lot of table moving ahead of us.

For example, we have had only limited success in our efforts to include the Arab and Muslim communities. There are many reasons for this, one of which is that many Arab and Muslim Americans recognize that in a post 9/11 America, they are vulnerable to political persecution. Arab and Muslim Americans, especially immigrant Arab and Muslim Americans, are often subjected to greater scrutiny, greater mistrust, and greater surveilance.

In this setting, a reasonable coping strategy for them is to keep their heads down, be good citizens, and say out of controversy.

ICPJ isn’t designed to stay out of controversy. So, we’re going to have a harder time recruiting Arabs and Muslims unless we move the table.

One way we’re doing that is with this year’s ICPJ Annual Meeting. We’re featuring a speaker about the Liberty and Justice for All campaign dealing with due process rights for immigrants. This is both a good issue for ICPJ to deal with and it is a way to be in solidarity with vulnerable immigrant communities.

Hopefully it will move us closer to being more welcoming for Arabs, Muslims, or [email protected] Even if it doesn’t, it’s the right thing to do.

Moving the table is hard work, but it’s better than keeping the table on inhospitable ground.

How can an Interfaith organization deal with the changing religious landscape?

As I’ve already mentioned, dealing with the changing religious landscape is one of the key questions facing ICPJ for our future.

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life recently released a groundbreaking study on the US Religious Landscape.

It’s loaded with fascinating findings, but one in particular is the growing segment of people who are unaffiliated with any particular religious tradition:

The survey finds that the number of people who say they are unaffiliated with any particular faith today (16.1%) is more than double the number who say they were not affiliated with any particular religion as children. Among Americans ages 18-29, one-in-four say they are not currently affiliated with any particular religion.

These has dramatic impacts for groups doing congregation-based organizing like ICPJ.

The ground that we’ve stood on as an organization for 43 years is eroding. Congregations are less and less the the basis for spiritual fulfillment for Americans. And considering the declining membership in mainline congregations, this basis is even more imperiled.

I see three possible responses to this change:

  1. Ignore it, at least for now. We’re still doing okay. We still have a good fundraising base and health congregation support. We can ride this horse for a while before it gives out on us.
  2. Be part of a revival of congregations. There’s a credible story to tell that congregations have an important role in sustaining activism and spiritual fulfillment. If we help tell this story, it could help reinvigorate our partner congregations.
  3. Shift our focus from “religious” activists to “spiritual” activists. Instead of fighting or ignoring the trends, we could ride with them. This would expand our tent, and it would also challenge us to update our language and habits to embrace both formally religious people and informally spiritual people. That’s a tall order, but I think we’re up to it.

Ignoring the shifts is our default position, but I don’t think it’s viable in the long-term.

I find the second option alluring, but I don’t think it’s realistic. I We may be able to have some regeneration effect for religious communities. It is also tricky. We can’t say to people “congregations can help feed your soul and sustain your activism” if our partner congregations are either spiritually dead or hesitant around activism.

I tend to think option three has the most promise, but I’ll be honest, I get nervous thinking about how to navigate the ambiguities of that position. In the short term, it risks alienating our congregation-based core support without attracting large numbers of new supporters.

Respect the whole person, emotions and all

There's more to people than just a brainIn a discussion of What’s the Matter with Kansas in my Progressive Book Group, somebody said,

My worry is that the Democrats will take the wrong lessons from the Republican victories, that they will start simplifying issues and playing to emotions and value.

Which, for me, are exactly the lessons that progressives should be learning.

Respect the entire person, not just their brain

Many progressives fear that when we simplify, when we appeal to emotions, and when we evoke moral values that we are disrespecting people by not appealing to their intellect.

I take the opposite view. We respect our audience when we acknowledge the complexity that they already face and when we deal with them as complete people: head, heart, and spirit.

The beauty of simplification

Most people I know these days are overwhelmed by the complexity of the world. The challenges of balancing work, family, leisure, friends, faith, and community are formidable, especially after you add in the information overload that the Internet brings us.

In this situation, you respect someone by recognizing that they may not have much energy left to think about your issue. If you can’t make it easy, they will tune you out. They have too much on your mind. That’s their reality–get over it.

You have two options: respect that they are overwhelmed, simplify your message, and reach your audience OR insist that they give you more attention that they can spare, disregard the stress that their overwhelmed life gives them, and then complain when they don’t pay attention.

Appeal to emotions

Emotions are important.

Emotions are powerful.

I’m more attached to my emotions than I am to my thoughts. My love for my wife, my anger at the war, my hope for fixing health care in Michigan; all these are more important to me than my thoughts about the relative merits of single-payer versus insurance mandates for covering the uninsured.

Respect this emotional part of me and the others in your audience…speak to our hearts.

Express your values.

Joe Reilly and bumper stickers proclaim “if you stand for nothing, you’ll fall for anything.”

Values, like emotions, are powerful. If you ignore them, you ignore a crucial part of your audience…and of yourself.

Stand for something. Speak your values. Appeal to the values of others.

The complete picture

None of this is to denigrate the role of the intellect in communication. Yes, we need the facts, the arguments. We need to respect people’s brains as well. I’m not calling to jettison rationality in favor of a euphoric emotionalism.

I’m calling on progressives to respect our audiences in their entirety.

Respect the craziness of their lives.

Respect their heart and their emotions.

Respect their soul and their values.

And yes, respect their head and their intellect.

Respect them completely. Listen to them completely.

And then they may choose to listen to you and respect you.

Photo by

Easter, Transformation, and Fear

Last week in Bible study we read Matthew’s account of the resurrection of Jesus (Mat 28:1-10), and I was struck by how much this passage has to do with fear:

After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb.

There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men.

The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples: ‘He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.’ Now I have told you.”

So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them. “Greetings,” he said. They came to him, clasped his feet and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”

Now, normally we don’t think about fear when we think about Easter (unless, like me, you’re terrified of Peeps).

But doesn’t transformation, rebirth, and renewal always come with fear? Don’t we always resist change and fear it?

The  Easter story reminds us that change is possible. That hope emerges from hopelessness. That death triumphs over life. But, for us to experience this joy, we must be willing to let our joy overcome our fear.

Mary Magdalene and the other Mary let their joy and their hope triumph over their fear, while the guards new only fear. Without joy to overcome their fear, they were bought off by the religious elite to suppress the resurrection account.

We too can know the joy and the hope that comes from rebirth and renewal. It will not prevent fear, but it does have the power to overcome our fear, if we are willing.

The Power of Preparation: The Wish-Want-Walk Negotiating Method

Despite a silly cover, Michael Donaldson’s book Fearless Negotiating: The Wish-Want-Walk Method to Reaching Agreements that Work is a very good read, even if you don’t do much negotiating.

The premise of the book is simple: before you walk into to any negotiation you should prepare yourself by knowing you Wish, your Want, and and your Walk away point.

Wish: You wish is where, if everything goes perfectly, you would like the negotiation to end up. Think big. Get everyone on board. Start by creating a grand plan and then whittling it down to a manageable number of wishes. Now you know where you hope things will go.

Want: Your want is where you think the negotiation will end up. You’ve researched the field, you know the people you’re negotiating with, and this is where you expect things to end up.

Walk: You walk point is where you say, “I can’t make this agreement, this is giving up too much,” and you are ready to walk away. You won’t make an agreement that is worse than your walk away point. This is similar to what Getting to Yes calls you Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement.

That’s it! It is a beautifully simple system.

Of course, simple is not the same as easy. It takes work to do the soul-searching to come up with your wish. It takes work to do the research to have a well-informed want. And it takes work to develop the discipline to write down your walk and be ready to hold to it.

But when you do that work, it smooths the path for a productive negotiation.

Since you know your wish, you an ready to start the negotiation with your big vision and to negotiate from there.

Since you know your walk, you are unlikely to feel “buyers remorse” or worry you made a bad deal.

Since you know where you stand, you’re better positioned to listen to the others in the negotiaiton.

Since you’ve gotten buy-in on your wish-want-walk, you avoid criticism from making a “bad deal.” People have already agreed what’s a good deal and what’s an unacceptable deal.

And this system applies to more than just classical negotiation situations. As I look to the future of ICPJ, I can use Wish-Want-Walk to figure out where I would like the organization to go, where I think it will go, and what future directions would tell me it’s time to move on.