Tag Archives: activism

Grassroots Change – From the Ground Up

Grassroots Change - Problem Solving From the Ground Up

Grassroots change works from the ground up, rather than the top down. It does not rely on politicians, experts, corporations, or big non-profits. But it may be the most effective type of change.

We need change in many areas – politics, education, economics, environment, wellness care, to name just a few. You know the problems…and they’re all intertwined, at both cause and effect levels.

In that context, many people watched the U.S. presidential debate last night. Some Americans are still struggling to decide how to vote in the election for the “Leader of the Free World,” a term that was first used during the Cold War. And they are hoping for some clarification from the debates. Some, especially in other countries, watched for entertainment or in bewilderment that it’s come to this circus. Many of my friends and acquaintances worry what the world would look like if it was led by a bumbling, narcissistic, misogynist bigot.

I worry, too. But as much as I think that the election – or any large event, for that matter – is very important, I don’t lose too much sleep over it. And my belief in the strength of everyday actions and activities keeps me leaping out of bed most mornings. I think, as I wrote in my book Challenging Assumptions in Education, that “change on the scale that is required happens one person at a time.” Lasting change occurs from the grassroots, in a bottom-up manner. And that’s because it directly addresses people’s needs and is participatory.

Sociologists are increasingly realizing how important it is that community members create, lead, and engage with solutions to their own problems. Expensive, top-down solutions seldom gain enough buy-in to work in the long-term.

So what does grassroots change look like?

It relies not on power over others, but, as Starhawk wrote in her 1988 book Truth or Dare, on power with others – the collective actions of our peers at the local level.

It is born of passion for our communities and our neighbors. It involves connecting and communicating, informing, and helping others to tackle an issue. Community-building activities – either locally or with a community-of-interest – are powerful learning experiences and cement both change and relationships. Seeing direct results of our activities – making things better for our families and neighbors – spurs us to take more action. Solving one small, personal, family, or local problem can lead to further change, inspiring others to create change…and so it goes.

Grassroots change can involve civil disobedience and boycotts, but it doesn’t have to. It is also veggies and herbs grown instead of flowers in downtown planters and the harvest used to make soup for street people. It’s a Little Free Library. A bench on a street where isn’t one. Picking up trash as you walk. None of these efforts alone will save the world from climate change or war or terrorism. But on their own, and as they multiply (and they will), they will inspire others to help make their corner of the world a better place. And who knows where that spirit of positivity and inspiration will lead?

Local grassroots change activities sometimes require organizing, but they don’t rely on traditional power structures to get things done. They don’t replicate the hierarchies, gender or race or other discriminations, and special interests that they’re attempting to overturn.

The self-directed education community is a good example of grassroots activity leading to change. For over forty years, families have been helping their children learn without school systems. As our numbers grew and the community diversified, a home-based education movement inevitably formed, with the support of unfunded, grassroots groups of volunteer parents (often moms) working to provide information and assistance to their peers. In many countries, there is now enough experience, strength, and momentum to withstand any interference with the principles and goals of self-directed education. And, more than that, those principles are being adopted (sometimes, in a watered-down fashion, but that’s okay) beyond the life learning sphere – in schools, in the minds of those contemplating post-secondary education, and more. People hopping on your bandwagon can be a sign that you’re moving in the right direction!

Other examples of grassroots efforts include Brazil’s land equity movement of the 1970s, the Chinese rural democracy movement of the 1980s, the German peace movement of the 1980s, and modern movements worldwide supporting local economies and the environment.

So take your cue from the many grassroots activities already in action. Vote, but concentrate most of your time and research on electoral races taking place at lower, more local levels – because that’s where a lot of the power for change lies. Don’t rely on presidential elections, national organizations, or the academic community to create change for you. Move ahead in your own immediate sphere, with whatever knowledge, determination, joy, and kindness you can summon. You’ll create change. And your life will be calmer and richer.

Remember what Margaret Mead said: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”


Anarchy in Education?

Anarchy in Education?

Often, in the news, we hear the term “anarchy” incorrectly used to describe incidents of vandalism, violence, or other mayhem said to have been perpetrated by “anarchists.” In reality, anarchy can be defined as a society without a popularly recognized government or a central governing authority. And that, most people assume, will automatically lead to vandalism, violence, and mayhem.

Why do they think that? Most people just can’t imagine living without hierarchy, leaders, and authorities telling them what to do and how to do it. In the same way, most adults cannot believe that children are capable of managing their own lives and learning without adult direction and intervention. Most people simply do not trust themselves and other people, including their own children, to live peacefully and productively without being directed by others who are thought to be more capable, better informed, and/or more enlightened. They assume the alternative is chaos – what they incorrectly define as anarchy.

That’s because most of us have been brought up to be followers who do what we’re told – in our families, churches, schools, and other institutions. As I wrote in my book Challenging Assumptions in Education, the school assembly line has conditioned us to think that anything more difficult than which brands to buy should be left to the “experts.” Doctoring ourselves is irresponsible, constructing our own houses is not feasible, organizing within our communities is subversive, and learning on our own just doesn’t work.

The world is currently experiencing mayhem – economically, environmentally, politically, and socially. Will we ever find just the right style of government, political party, or leader to fix things? Probably not. In fact, we just might have to take matters into our own hands, as people around the world have been doing. In our culture, we are not used to active participation and problem-solving, so many people find the prospect scary. However, we need to develop those tools and many more in order to find a way out of the mayhem my generation has created.
Fortunately, kids who are growing up without school – and with their active questioning abilities, self-esteem, self-reliance, and other important qualities intact – can provide the solution.

As life learning parents, we can help create change, in the world and with our children, by modeling self-reliant thinking and trust in our decisions about how our families live and learn…as well as about issues like politics and the environment. We might not create anarchy, but we can certainly create a better world than we have now.

Yes, Unschooling is Progressive

Unschooling is Progressive

Yes, unschooling is progressive. I am not sure why this is a difficult concept for many people to grasp. But, these days, I seem to be spending more time than usual talking to people about how most life learners are engaged in the life of their communities – and that, in fact, it’s a large part of how they learn. I am amazed that, at least four decades into the modern home education experience, many (most?) people on the progressive left end of the political spectrum still think learning without school is isolationist and therefore socially regressive.

For instance, I have just finished an exchange with a guy who thought he had uncovered a major contradiction in my thinking and, therefore, in my work. Home-based education, he declared, is highly individualized and focused on the family, which isolates children from society. It’s self-centered by nature, he stated, turning out “graduates” who are lacking interest in society and the common good. That, he pointed out, is totally out of sync with my writing in Natural Life Magazine about social change, the New Economy, environmental issues, and so on. He actually said the “flaw” that he’d detected diminishes my credibility as someone interested in solving world problems…and kindly urged me to drop the “infatuation with homeschooling.”

Always ready to patiently explain and educate, I assured him that unschooling is progressive, after all. I first tried to help him understand the error of his stereotypical view of home education. I agreed that there are some homeschooling families that are insular in their outlook, and assured him that many others aren’t. Stereotyping people who live without school is just as ridiculous as making broad assumptions about people whose kids attend school.

In reality, there are large numbers of civic-minded life learning families for whom unschooling is progressive – adults and children alike who volunteer their time, speak up about important issues, and are active in other ways that will help their communities. These families model public service for their children, demonstrate to their neighbors that children have a voice, and provide a rich learning environment – in addition to creating social change.

I hoped that providing my critic with some examples would help him understand the linkages between learning without schooling and social change. In the September/October 2014 issue of Life Learning Magazine, we wrote about community engagement and unschooling. In the November/December issue, I wrote about place-based education, which allows students to use their local communities as resources for learning by doing. And in the January/February 2015 issue, we tied those two concepts together with a series of profiles of unschooling families that are active in their communities.

As is all too common on social media, the guy didn’t thank me for the information or even take the time to read those articles. Instead, propelled by his righteousness, he immediately went on to blame home-based education for what he called the “current and widespread degeneration of civic engagement.” That, of course, is rather much of an overstatement, but most homeschoolers are used to being told they should fix schools from the inside rather than bleeding off “the cream of the crop” from the system and therefore making it worse that it already is.

Realizing the futility of talking to a wall, I didn’t go on to point out to this person that public schools are not the models of democracy and human rights that he thinks they are. As I wrote in Challenging Assumptions in Education, children learn about democracy by living and participating in one – going to public meetings, educating their fellow citizens about issues, protesting when something happens they think is inappropriate, and so on. Being forced to attend school five days a week, where many aspects of life are out of their control, doesn’t help them learn how to function democratically. So I didn’t bother to suggest that removing the compulsory attendance requirement and top-down methods of operation would go a long way toward putting some reason behind those criticisms.

If he’d been willing to listen further, I’d have told this person that all the things I work on are side effects of the Industrial Revolution. That includes public schools, the separation of work and play, the compartmentalization of functions in society, environmental and public health damage, human rights issues, and the devaluation of home life and of the work of women and children. And the solutions to the problems created by those things are inevitably interconnected.

All I can hope for is that eventually this guy will notice how school-free children and young people are repopulating their communities on a daily basis – shopping, banking, volunteering in seniors’ homes and animal shelters, attending public meetings, going to the library, playing in the park, swimming at the community center. And maybe then he’ll realize that kids are citizens too, and that they are interested in and involved in community life, something that’s arguably easier for school-free kids that for their peers who are sitting in schools, insulated from real life.

Maybe then, he’ll realize that there is no flaw in my belief that the liberation of children and young people is an important part of the solution to the many problems his and my generations have created. Yes, unschooling is progressive…and much more.

When Activist Icons Undermine Their Causes

When activist icons undermine their causes.

Many problems arise when working on issues that aren’t solved quickly; one is that the issues can outlive those who have been publicly working on them for a long time. And sometimes, those veterans of the cause who become activist icons can undermine their own work if they hang around too long.

Feminism is one of those causes. We’ve come a long way baby…but we have a long way to go.

For instance, I’m disturbed by recent comments made by two prominent feminists of my generation speaking in favor of their preferred candidate in the nomination process for the U.S. presidential election (in which I have no say and will voice no opinion).

Here’s 81-year-old feminist icon Gloria Steinem the other day: “Women tend to get more radical…because they lose power as they age,” she told broadcaster Bill Maher while discussing why a large number of young women are supporting Bernie Sanders rather than Hillary Clinton, who is Steinem’s favorite. “They’re going to get more activist as they grow older. And when you’re younger, you think, ‘where are the boys? The boys are with Bernie.’”

And here is 78-year-old Madeleine Albright, former U.S. Secretary of State, scolding those same young women who favor the man in the race and telling them, “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other!”

I think these comments are not only condescending, but dangerously sexist and ageist. They are undermining the work Steinem and Albright and their colleagues have accomplished for women’s rights. And they are dismissing the opinions of a generation of energetic, thoughtful young women who have finally found something/someone political to get excited about. Methinks these feminist activist icons didn’t need to do quite so much damage as they campaigned in favor of the woman president that would nicely cap off their feminist careers!

I know a bit about this.

One the issues I’ve worked on for most of my adult life – promoting learner-directed, school-free education – is another of those big elephants that is taking a few generations to turn around.

As I age (I’m 65), and as the ground shifts, my role in that turnaround is changing. I’m actually wondering if my role has run its course. I find myself thinking maybe it’s time to leave the next round to all those younger women (and a few men) who are so capably articulating the issues and supporting the cause…and each other. But for now, some people still listen to what bits of wisdom I have to share. So I stick around, although I’ve largely stepped out of the fray. Mostly, I observe from the sidelines. I marvel at how far we’ve come and how much things have changed, even if the problem still isn’t solved. I turn down speaking engagements and media requests. And I come to terms with the fact that things might not have unfolded completely in line with my personal, original vision.

So, to Steinem and Albright and probably others of my generation (including myself, for whom this is a good reminder), I say this:

Separate yourself and your ego from your work so that your present words and actions don’t undermine your legacy. Be on guard for the day that your opinion on the topic you’ve loved for so long has become so unhelpful or even irrelevant to the current situation that it has become harmful.

On one hand, I admire Steinem’s stance of not giving up the torch; of course, age does not necessarily diminish our ability to be effective.

On the other hand, when we babble counterproductive nonsense, we not only set back the cause we’re engaged in, we stop younger people from respecting us (and others) as elders, and from accepting the torches we’re passing to them.

If I get to that stage and am still hanging around the school-free scene, please just put me on an ice flow (if there are any left) and give it a shove – figuratively, if course. 😉