Tag Archives: democracy

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.”


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.

Instead of Efficiency

Instead of Efficiency

Efficiency is one of the hallmarks of our society. And, on the surface, creating more desired results from the resources available may seem benign or even beneficial, whether we’re talking agriculture, business, government, or education. However, our quest for efficiency is, increasingly, leading us to dangerous places.

A good example of this lies in the way we produce our food. Take, for instance, the highly efficient “confined animal feeding operations” (CAFOs). Critics have been warning for years that these massive, inhumane animal factories are incubators for virulent super-pathogens, and we’ve written about them in Natural Life Magazine. Knowing that their crowded and unhygienic farms put animals at risk of disease, farmers pump pigs and cattle full of antibiotics, which is the prerequisite for antibiotic-resistant organisms and a potential public health crisis. The industrial farming company finds it more efficient to give drugs to healthy animals than to grow food on small, mixed farms where conditions are humane, animals stay healthy, and customers are nearby. This efficiency serves both corporate greed and consumer desire for cheap food.

Capitalism is also, by definition and design, highly efficient as it matches resources to consumer demand. Globalization is an efficiency-driven expansion of capitalism, with its deregulation of nation-state financial and labor markets. And we are now seeing the effects of an integrated global economy on the environment and society. It is increasing the devastation of natural habitats, speeding global warming, and polluting water supplies. It has given us unsustainable development, job insecurity, and growing socio-economic inequity. It has usurped democratic control by multinational corporations and the financial institutions that support them. And it is focused on growth at all costs, irrespective of quality of life.

While we would like to agree with the promoters of these policies that they will eventually lead to democratization and freedom around the world, globalization was not chosen by voters. In fact, democracy itself is not particularly efficient. Educating people about the issues, allowing for discussion and debate, consensus-building, and implementing policies that are not in the best interests of everyone, all require time and can be messy. Dictatorship is much more efficient!

Education is one of the ways we presume to learn to live democratically. But efficiency has become a hallmark of public education too, creating large classes, one-size-fits-all curriculum, and standardized testing. Efficiency has entrenched the outmoded factory model of schooling and its pursuit of economies of scale at a time when we are long overdue for a paradigm shift instead. We are efficiently processing students along a conveyor belt of stale facts instead of helping them develop their creativity, research skills, adaptation abilities, and love of learning, all of which will help them live more democratically and productively. I’ve written about this – and the alternative – in Life Learning Magazine.

Fortunately, it seems that the issues of the day are providing us with the inspiration to embrace less efficient but more robust systems in all these aspects of life. I think we could be approaching the tipping point, where enough people recognize that efficiency is not always the most important thing and that the “experts” don’t always have our best interests at heart.

Many more of us are moving back to basics, spending less money on courses and electronic toys for our children, growing our own veggie gardens, leaving our cars at home when walking or cycling are possible, taking control over our own health and wellness, shopping less and mending more, getting to know our neighbors and enjoying time spent with family. These things aren’t necessarily efficient, but they are creating habits that will ultimately make us healthier, better governed, and more educated. I’ve seen a huge increase in interest in these topics since my partner Rolf and I started Natural Life Magazine almost forty years ago.

Hitting the ecological, economic, and ethical walls all at the same time has got our attention. It remains to be seen how we will work ourselves out of the mess. But I do know that more people than ever before have a sense of the impact their actions have on the world. So I continue to have hope for a sustainable future – where capitalism and consumerism do not cause human suffering, and where individuals take responsibility for discontinuing and cleaning up environmental and economic devastation.

Addressing the Myth That Unschoolers Aren’t Involved in Their Communities

protestOne of the criticisms of life learning / unschooling that riles me the most is the myth that unschoolers are sheltered from the life of their communities, and/or don’t associate with others of different backgrounds or cultures. Public school systems, these critics say, form the foundation of a caring, tolerant, and democratic society. And, by extension, unschoolers are not part of that.

That generalization is wrong, of course. And it is based on a misunderstanding, even ignorance, of both schooling and unschooling! As I wrote in my 2000 book Challenging Assumptions in Education, “Scratch the surface of most public school systems and you will find something quite different from justice and democracy, in spite of good intentions. You will find an archaic institution that … perpetuates social hierarchies, disempowers people and forces them to do things against their will – supposedly for their own good – and encourages a destructive level of consumerism and consumption. If a democratic society is one in which people are collectively in control of their lives and the lives of their communities, then our present-day school systems are anti- democratic.”

In Life Learning Magazine, we often publish articles that elaborate on the criticism about non-participation and others put forth by otherwise progressive thinkers. For instance, here are two, another one, and a third.

Right now, we’re working on a feature about life learning / unschooling families and their direct participation in the democratic life of their communities. Have you and/or your kids have been involved in civil society – activism or volunteering in the form of such activities as helping at a food bank, raising money for a cause, public education about an important issue, participating in government meetings or at public protests, to name just a few possibilities? If you or they are willing to write about it, or answer some questions via email, or share a photo or two, I’d love to hear from you within the next month for inclusion in the article.

Life learners/ unschoolers are not sheltered. They live and learn in the real world, not the “pseudo world” that can be school. We think it is important to share our experiences with each other and the broader world.

Unschooling is a Model For a New, More Democratic Way

schools are not democraticYesterday, I was told, for the eight millionth time, that I should be ashamed of myself for advocating for homeschooling / unschooling because it undermines the strong public school systems that preserve our democratic rights, create a tolerant society, and “level the economic playing field.” And yet again, I explained that there is not much that is democratic or even socially just about our current public school system.

Sure, there are some kids for whom school is a safe place, and we certainly need such places. But that doesn’t mean we need to continue with schools as they are currently configured; nor do we need to force children to go there. Statistics show that for most poor kids school doesn’t change much about their lives, either present or future; whatever chaos reigns at home affects their lives profoundly in spite of their attendance at school. Poor kids living in poor neighborhoods go to poor schools and do poorly. As much as we love the occasional rags-to-riches story, even if a few poor kids manage to do well in school, they won’t necessarily go to college, thrive and graduate, and get good jobs.

I think the early defenders of public schools as the foundation of democracy – guys like Horace Mann, Thomas Jefferson, and John Dewey – would be horrified to spend time in our schools today. Scratch the surface of a public school system – no matter how well-meaning its staff – and you will find something quite different from justice and democracy. You will find an archaic institution, which, besides defying everything we know about effective organizations and cognitive development, perpetuates social hierarchies, disempowers people, forces them to do things against their will, and encourages a destructive level of consumerism and consumption. Oh, and it’s not closing the poverty gap.

If a democratic society is one in which people are collectively in control of their lives and the lives of their communities, then our present-day school systems are actually anti-democratic. So please spare me the democracy and social justice arguments in favor of warehousing children.

Reversing our democratic deficit and lifting people out of poverty (let alone dealing with our environmental problems) are complicated tasks, with even more complicated roots. But they won’t be accomplished by using more of the same tactics that created them. The unschooling and homeschooling communities can provide some examples of new ways to live together and to educate ourselves