[A third post on Eric Liu’s You’re More Powerful than You Think: A Citizen’s Guide to Making Change Happen (Public Affairs, March 28, 2017), the perfect accompaniment to thinking about what you might do to make a difference in these troubling times.]
Some of the most exciting stories that Liu tells involve movements to change the way workers gain power. Their leaders accept that certified unions and collective bargaining are not the framework of the future. One of the new organizations preparing for this future is The Workers Lab. The lab is supporting tools for workers in the modern workplace, for example, an app called WorkerReport that gives workers a direct channel to local worker centers so they can document wage theft issues or health and safety violations they think need to be dealt with. In this project, the lab is working with New Haven’s own SeeClickFix.
More depressing is Liu’s view of the typical conservative narrative: Paradise, Paradise Lost, Paradise Redeemed. Things were better, but those things were attacked from without and betrayed from within, and we need to fight to get it back. Trump knew how to use this narrative effectively.
Beyond a narrative, movements need “a concrete conflict in a defined arena with a binary possible outcome.” Climate change isn’t enough to get people to act; in fact, it can seem like an intractable problem, leading to paralysis. Better to stop the Keystone Pipeline or to get universities to divest from companies involved with fossil fuels. Unfortunately, this often means a focus on less important solutions that can best be handled by public protest.
It is also important to have defining fights, which can be extreme (e.g., on the right, campus carry) or moderate (e.g., on the left, the Dreamers). What is important in such fights is crystallizing the broader conflict and defining it in one’s own terms.
Movements also require networks, to amplify power “not incrementally but exponentially,” power that is based not on control but rather on invitation. For example, #Giving Tuesday took off globally due to a counter-commercial value system that led people to want to make a positive statement against the commercialization of the holiday season. Networks set off “contagions of attitude and action,” as well as “webs of knowledge.”
Liu says that the practitioner of civic power should not just try to nudge a network, but be the network. “Society becomes how you behave. … Small actions (and omissions) compound.”
Liu is big on networked localism, working with a variety of solutions to the needs of the poor while giving them a sense of agency. He gives the example of the Family Independence Initiative, which began in Oakland, and bypasses or preempts the state “in ways that don’t fit easily into a left-right framework.” It has experimented with such things as matched savings accounts and lending circles.
Liu’s final strategy for opening up power is acting reciprocally, building systems of mutual aid and opening up opportunities for cooperative self-government, what Liu calls “power-as-sociability.” Power with rather than power over. He found that the ecosystem of groups and leaders focused on issues or constituencies is “separated by invisible fences of habit and culture.” He created an institution, the Civic Collaboratory, that would help develop relationships across the whole ecosystem.
Mutual aid requires trust, but it also creates trust: you can best earn trust by giving it. Cooperation also changes the locus of responsibility, so that others’ problems are shared rather than just someone else’s problem. With great responsibility can come great power.
Liu reminds readers that although democracies are governed by majority rule, every significant civic change is moved by minority will. “It always takes only a few.” This is why we are more powerful than we think. And this is especially true at the local level.
For Liu, the enemy is not conservatives, but cynicism, which undermines trust, and denies responsibility and the possibility of remedying situations.
There is a lot of wisdom in this book, and the many stories that are told are both inspirational and provide valuable models to emulate. I highly recommend this new book by the founder of Citizen University, whose most local manifestation was this February’s Yale Civic Leadership Conference.