Creative Maladjustment (cont.)

Continued from Part One


My own experience of innovation within my field might be relevant here. About eight years ago I started asking myself how I, as an environmental studies educator, could help increase the effectiveness of social movements and citizen activists. Focusing on this important question sent me on a three-year journey that ultimately led to the creation of Antioch University New England’s unusual master’s program in Environmental Advocacy and Organizing.

Yet, this same question of how can I help increase the effectiveness of activists and social movements has not stopped beating in my heart since I set up the Environmental Advocacy and Organizing Program at Antioch. This question still pushes me to improve and refine my work in our activist training program as well as work with other academics to expand university education on community change activism and organizer training. The question has just never ceased to inspire and guide my work. I, therefore, hope that all of you will continue to ask yourselves just what you can do within your own sphere of influence within the field of psychology that could help increase the effectiveness of needed social movements and citizen activism.

Like all good questions, however, this question can lead to others. A big one for me when I was designing the advocacy and organizing program was, “What do sustainability activists need to know in order to be effective?” For my curriculum action research on this question, which is described in more detail in my dissertation, I decided that there were at least three paths to finding an answer. The first path was to reflect on my own years as a participant-observer in many different activist efforts. The second research path was to analyze what social movement scholars have identified as the core wisdom, knowledge, and skills most essential for effective activism. The final path I hit on was to read the results of several published interviews and surveys of activists who were asked to reflect on their own learning needs.

Most important among these activist reflections for me was Technical Assistance & Progressive Organizations for Social Change in Communities of Color. This report was commissioned by the New York Funding Exchange and was written by Luz Guerra in 1999. In this research, Guerra first asked the members of the Funding Exchange’s Saguaro Grantmaking Board what they saw as the most needed areas of training and technical assistance for grassroots social movement organizations. She then interviewed the activists in the Exchange’s grantee groups on these same topics.

Two other activist-based reports were also very helpful to me. One was The Listening Project: A National Dialogue on Progressive Movement-Building, which reported on interviews conducted in 1999 by the Peace Development Fund with over sixty community organizers from around the United States. The third report, which was explicitly focused on environmental activists, was the Conservation Foundation’s 1984 study Training for Environmental Groups, which analyzed interviews and surveys with executive directors and staff of over 100 environmental advocacy organizations.

Using this basic research strategy, I was able to discern important patterns and I ultimately identified four core proficiency areas that are necessary to all effective social movement advocacy and organizing—and an additional one specifically needed for environmental and sustainability activists. The first core proficiency area is what I call social action skills, or what Guerra in the Funding Exchange study calls “the skills needed for the day-to-day realization of the program work of our progressive organizations.” Such skills include political education, recruiting people, choosing issues, selecting targets, planning action strategies, running media campaigns, Internet activism, lobbying, electoral work, nonviolent direct action, community organizing, networking with sympathetic allies in the public and private sectors, participating effectively in public hearings, community-based action research, building coalitions, collaborative problem solving, and a wide variety of cultural preparation work. There is a wide repertoire of potential social action options available to today’s advocates and organizers. (For example, in his classic book The Politics of Nonviolent Action, Gene Sharp lists over 180 different nonviolent direct action tactics alone.)

The second key proficiency area is organization-building and leadership skills. When Luz Guerra asked the members of the Funding Exchange’s Saguaro Grantmaking Board what they saw as the most needed area of training and technical assistance for grassroots social movement organizations, the answers she received were the “types of assistance/training that help an organization strengthen and develop as a nonprofit entity: board development, obtaining and fulfilling the requirements of 501(c)(3) status, and fundraising skills.” Essentially, these funders were thinking of activist applications of the nonprofit organizational training that is routine in continuing education and graduate nonprofit management programs.

When she asked many of the grassroots activists who had received grants from the Funding Exchange, their answers were similar, but somewhat deeper. They too talked about the need for “technical assistance in the business of running an activist organization… [and] managing a progressive nonprofit.” Yet, according to Guerra, this group came up with a longer list or organization-building skills than the grantmakers. The grassroots activists’ list included creating revenue generation projects; fundraising; fiscal management; office administration; volunteer and staff recruitment, supervision and training, but it also included diversity management; action research, long-range planning; organizational communications; meeting facilitation; democratic group process; and conflict resolution.

A third proficiency area identified by the activists interviewed in the Funding Exchange study is big picture power analysis, vision, and strategy. A vast majority of the respondents in the study expressed a strong desire for help in developing a more seasoned or mature political consciousness. As Guerra reports, they were eager for more political education “in critical political/social/economic analysis, and strategic movement building.” They also wanted more big picture information “to carry forward our anti-oppression work on racism, internalized oppression, sexism, classism, and homophobia.” I, of course, would also add anthropocentrism to this list.

The value of developing “big picture” political understandings was also the central lesson that emerged from The Listening Project: A National Dialogue on Progressive Movement-Building. When asked open-ended questions about the biggest barriers to effective movement-building, most respondents voiced “a strong critique of ‘politics-free’ organizing.” The idea here is that having an understanding of a single issue is just not sufficient and that effective activists need to develop a more integrated sense of the underlying social system, the political economy, and the dynamics of social movement history and strategy.

As one of the activists interviewed said, “If we are not developing people’s critical consciousness and analysis of the systems, institutions, and culture that create unjust societal relationships… what is the purpose of our organizing?” These activist interviewees stressed time and again that there was an urgent need “to increase local activists’ capacity to frame their work within a larger context” and move beyond single-issue thinking.

As we’ve seen from some of the stories I’ve told today, many of the activities in these three core proficiency areas—social action skills, organizational building, and big picture political thinking—can be carried out in psychologically-smart or psychologically-stupid ways. It is important then for each of you to think about how you can contribute your psychological research, insights, and practical tools to help increase the effectiveness of community organizing and other political initiatives.

There is still another important contribution that can be made. In the background of both the practitioner and scholarly literature I studied, there were strong hints of a fourth core competency area–what we might call “emotional competence” or “self-care and personal growth.” Looked at negatively, the central focus in this core proficiency area is developing the personal qualities, wisdom, and skills needed to avoid burnout or burdening one’s organization with unresolved personal problems. Looked at positively, the focus is on developing the personal qualities, wisdom, and skills to lead satisfying and energetic lives amidst the frequent chaos and stresses involved in organizing—and thereby adding to the spirit of stability, humor, good cheer, and mutual respect in our social movement organizations.

Guerra reports that several of her interviewees worried some about their physical, emotional, and spiritual health in the face of the frequent reality that “activists are overworked, underpaid, and highly stressed.” One activist even claimed we are “suffering in ways we don’t know how to name.” The activists interviewed by the Peace Development Fund also highlighted this area of concern: “Many asked how we can better nurture the people engaged in the struggle.” Indeed, as the authors of the report note, “There was a strongly expressed belief that many progressive activists and organizations ignore or underemphasize attention to internal work.”

Activist training theorist Randy Schutt is very adamant about the danger of this under-emphasis. As he points out, a good society–and certainly an effective movement–“cannot exist if everyone suffers from emotional trauma and regularly acts out in inappropriate ways.” He thus believes that any comprehensive program to help activists become more effective “must include ways for people to learn how to stop inflicting their dysfunctional behavior on others and help them learn means to interrupt other’s inappropriate behavior.” He also adds that many activists can use help in learning how “to develop the determination and self-discipline necessary to bring about significant positive change.”

The deep importance of such “internal” work comes into even clearer focus when we look at the key personal qualities that make a person a good organizer. As Si Kahn notes in Organizing: A Guide for Grassroots Leaders, an effective organizer likes people; builds trust and friendships easily; has a sense of humor; listens well; helps people believe in themselves; can let others take the credit; works hard; is self-disciplined, mature, and able to set limits; doesn’t get discouraged too often; has a solid sense of identity and personal vision; is flexible and open to new ideas; and is honest and courageous even in the face of stress and fear.

All of these positive personal qualities need to be cultivated and all of them can be compromised when people are in the grip of burnout, spiritual despair, or personal neglect. As Luz Guerra notes at the close of her study:

One truth rang clear in all of the stories I heard. There are gaping needs and open wounds in our organizations, in our organizational capacity, and in our social movements. If we do not respond to them with all the resources at our command, then the results will be the continued floundering, stagnation, and decline of the groups we have entrusted with carrying our movements forward.

This should not come as a surprise. Even though activists have moved farther towards “creative maladjustment” than their more passive neighbors, that does not mean that they have freed themselves from all denial, distorted thinking, and learned helplessness that weighs people down in this society. The feelings, beliefs, perceptions, and behaviors of activists are still often misshaped by some of the worst features of our culture—especially by what Michael Lerner calls “surplus powerlessness.” This then is an area where politically-savvy psychologists could share their best insights and tools in creative ways with social movement activists to increase the effectiveness of our social movements. The possibilities are nearly endless if done with respect, compassion, and political insight.


Hopefully, describing these four core proficiency areas will help all of us here focus our thinking about how we each might better assist needed social movements to become more effective. Yet, to more fully ground this discussion in the core themes of this conference, I think we need to get back in our time machine and travel forward through the last four decades since Martin Luther King made his speech to the APA in 1967. It is not that the peace and social justice concerns championed by King are any less relevant in 2007. While the civil rights and peace movements of the 1960s won several incredibly important victories, many of these issues are still with us. However, in addition to King’s powerful peace and justice concerns, we now also need to move onto the very urgent issue of ecological sustainability in the 21st century. Some have even described our current environmental situation as a “planetary emergency.”

To help sustainability activists become even more effective will mean developing a fifth core proficiency—a grounded sense of ecological literacy and consciousness. In my own thinking about this fifth core competency, I have probably been most influenced by the thinking of David Orr, the author of the books Ecological Literacy and Earth in Mind.

For starters, I strongly agree with Orr that it is beneficial for sustainability activists to develop “an understanding of concepts such as carrying capacity, overshoot, Liebig’s Law of the minimum, thermodynamics, tropic levels, energetics, and succession” as well as “our place in the story of evolution.” Related to this, I also agree that “ecological literacy is to know something of the speed of the crisis that is upon us—to know magnitudes, rates, and trends of population growth, species extinction, soil loss, deforestation, desertification, climate change, ozone depletion, resource exhaustion, air and water pollution, toxic and radioactive contamination, resource and energy use—in short, the vital signs of the planet and its ecosystems.”

Orr also claims that ecological literacy and consciousness has a second component. One of his most passionate claims is that ecological consciousness requires more than book learning, and should also be cultivated by “direct experience in the natural world.” For this reason, Orr emphasizes that to be ecologically literate, people need exposure to the study of natural history where they get outside and are encouraged to pay close attention to the other living beings with which we share the planet. As Orr puts it,

In contrast with most academic studies, which are abstract indoor activities, natural history is concrete and requires direct involvement in nature. It requires first hand knowledge of trees, animals, plant life, birds, aquatic life, marine biology, and geology. It is an antidote to the excessively abstract, overly quantified and computerized, as well as the romantic view of nature derived from armchair ecologists. Natural history forces us to deal with nature on nature’s terms. It also promotes the capacity not only to see, but to observe with care, understanding, and, above all else, with pleasure.

I believe that this direct knowledge and appreciation of the natural world can also help sustainability activists move beyond the purely anthropocentric stance of most progressive activists, including even many environmental activists. This is important to me because I firmly believe that we must also become creatively maladjusted to a purely utilitarian approach to nature and expand our circle of direct moral concern to the more-than-human world as well as other human beings.

Like Orr, I also see a third dimension of ecological literacy that can increase the effectiveness of sustainability activists. The need here is to move beyond only focusing on the vital signs of the planet and begin to focus on the underlying social causes of the environmental crisis as well. According to Orr, “The ecologically literate person will appreciate something of how social structures, religion, science, politics, technology, patriarchy, culture, agriculture, and human cussedness combine as causes of our predicament.” As a corollary, the ecologically literate person also needs to have at least some understanding of how each of these areas of human social life can be transformed and, thus, become key resources in the transition to a just, democratic, and green society. As Orr notes, “The study of environmental problems is an exercise in despair unless it is regarded as only a preface to the study, design, and implementation of solutions.”

This expansion of the “Beloved Community” agenda beyond what King talked about in 1967 may sound daunting, but I already see several hopeful signs that popular ecological consciousness is expanding in this way. For example, how many of you have seen Al Gore’s movie “An Inconvenient Truth?” If you raised your hand, you are not alone. Millions of people have seen this movie, which is really not much more than a long PowerPoint lecture about the scientific reality of global warming. How did this become a hit movie in the United States of America?

I think the success of this movie is a great example of how a once vacillating politician, a talented documentary filmmaker, some good scientific advisors, and a group of activist sympathizers pushing online and word of mouth advertising can work together to create a breakthrough in the organized system of social denial that has sought to suppress public concerns about global warming in this country for decades.

For me, watching Al Gore’s movie “An Inconvenient Truth” reminded me of a scene in a cheesy Hollywood blockbuster a few years back. It was a military courtroom drama called “A Few Good Men.” In one climactic scene, Tom Cruise turns to Jack Nicholson, who is on the witness stand, and shouts, “Just tell me the truth.” Nicholson’s character jumps up in all his “Jack-ness” and shouts back, “The truth? The truth? You can’t handle the truth!”

Yet, just one academy award later, I see more and more people working hard to handle the inconvenient truth of this movie–that, because of our massive burning of fossil fuels over the last century, we are now in an accelerating and very dangerous period of global climate change. I’m not even sure the phrases global warming or global climate change can do justice to this situation. What we are really talking about is worldwide local climate disruption, with increasingly severe and almost unimaginable consequences for both people and planet.

As Al Gore suggests in this movie, if we are really going to handle this hard truth, we are going to have to help our households, our businesses, our governments, and the international community adopt an ambitious new set of policies and practices. First, we need to implement policies at the local, regional, national, and global levels that will result in the highest levels of energy conservation and efficiency. Second, we’ll need to implement policies at all levels that will result in a rapid shift away from fossil fuels towards safe and renewable energy sources. Finally, we will need to implement a variety of policies that strengthen our emergency preparedness and redesign our public and private infrastructure in order to minimize the damage and death toll when severe weather events or other kinds of climate disruptions do occur. We just have to do better than the Bush Administration did in preparing for and responding to the very predictable disasters of Hurricane Katrina and Rita.

The magnitude of all these needed policy changes is a bit staggering, but people are more and more getting it. One of the more visible examples is the Step It Up 2007 national day of climate action this took place on April 14. Hundreds of thousands of people in 1,400 communities around the country came together in a myriad of creative ways to call on Congress to pass legislation that would cut carbon emissions 80 percent by 2050. Events like this didn’t happen even a year or two ago. The entire system of climate change denial is now breaking down rapidly. This process is even farther along in many other countries.

One of the great things about the Gore movie is that it went beyond talking about the science of global warming and started to make the case for more citizen activism. Unfortunately, as refreshing as this part of the movie was, I think the documentary actually soft-peddled a very hard truth about what we need to do to end our industrial addiction to fossil fuels. I, at least, sensed some timidity in the movie during the closing credits. As much as I liked all the personal lifestyle changes suggested at the end of the movie, I’m absolutely convinced that just switching to energy-efficient light bulbs, buying local food more often, and walking and riding our bikes more is not going to get us all the way to where we need to go. Even the couple of suggestions the movie makes about voting regularly or writing letters to our elective officials is not going to be enough—especially when not all of our votes are counted and thousands of people of color are repeatedly pushed off the voting rolls in states like Florida and Ohio.

The other inconvenient truth hiding in the wings of this movie is that we don’t just need a power shift away from fossil fuels to renewables. We also need a power shift away from a government that has become a corrupt, elitist, corpocracy and move instead toward one that is genuinely of, by, and for the people—and has a meaningful vision of the common good. By the word “corpocracy,” I mean a government that is increasingly of, by, and for corporations, and especially dominated by Big Oil, Big Coal, and the Military-Industrial Complex that President Dwight Eisenhower warned us about 50 years ago. As long as corporate giants like Exxon-Mobil write our nation’s energy policy, bribe our elected officials, pay for their electoral campaigns, and spend millions in a cynical PR effort to make people doubt the factual case for climate change, we will be inhibited from making many of the long-term reforms and policy changes needed to address global climate disruption.

To address this side of the struggle for sustainability. we will also have to confront a government that has been captured by powerful corporate interests, many of whom will do everything in their power to resist a positive policy approach to global climate change. Lifestyle changes, cultivating new kinds of ecological consciousness, voting every four years, and writing letters to our representatives are all very needed, but these basic acts of civic virtue are not enough. To deal with this particularly urgent situation, many more of us need to become intensely politically active, volunteer with progressive activist organizations, experiment with new strategies, and build a social movement even more powerful than Gandhi’s Independence Movement in India, or the US Civil Rights Movement, or even the Polish Solidarity Movement that helped bring down the authoritarian Communist regimes in Eastern Europe. I believe that the task ahead will be of this magnitude.

If what I am saying is true, we will need a psychology profession that is much more politically savvy than it is today and a sustainability movement that is much more psychologically smart. What choices we each make now, and in the years ahead, will make a very material difference in the relative effectiveness and power of our movements for peace, justice, democracy, and sustainability. I urge each of you, as I urge myself, to become a more engaged citizen activist yourself. I also urge you all to contribute the best insights and tools of your profession to the movements we need to heal the world.


I opened today’s talk with some words from Martin Luther King’s 1967 speech to the American Psychological Association. Let me close with some words from another 1967 speech of his–the one where he ended his own vacillating and finally came out publicly against the brutal US invasion and occupation of Vietnam. With just a few changes of words, King could be speaking to us all of us from the grave today. As he said in his dramatic, April 4th, 1967 speech, “Beyond Vietnam:”

If we do not act we shall surely be dragged down the long dark and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.

Now let us begin. Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter—but beautiful—struggle for a new world. Shall we say the odds are too great? Shall we tell [ourselves] the struggle is too hard?… Or will there be another message, of longing, of hope, of solidarity with [our own] yearnings, of commitment to the cause, whatever the cost? The choice is ours, and though we might prefer it otherwise we must choose in this crucial moment of human history.

The future is in our hands, folks. Let’s go for it.

Thank you all very much!

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