Tag Archives: self-determination

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.”


No Need to Scale Up Unschooling

No Need to Scale Up Unschooling

So can we “scale up” unschooling? Not according to the newest point of criticism from the territory-protectors. After they’ve retired all the other nonsensical objections like lack of socialization, poor academics, sheltering kids, elitism, etc., etc., they state that we cannot scale up unschooling. That is the gotcha that allows them to think they’ve won something (because, of course, it’s business talk…and growth is important, right?!).

I don’t argue with those people because unschooling will, of course, inevitably scale up. And it is, in fact, already doing that. So many of the words that are foundational to learning without school are being used by researchers, academics, and other school folk. “Self-directed learning,” “child-directed,” “play-based learning,” “independence,” “life-long learning,” and more – even “unschooling” – are all out there in the lexicon now. Of course, what you or I or other life learners mean when we use those words is a world away from the lip service being given to them by so many others. And it’s oxymoronically silly to even think about superimposing those words onto the current system, which is about as far as many people’s imagination goes. But awareness is a step in the right direction.

And here’s the thing: Nobody needs to scale up unschooling. When the current education system, along with our economic and social ones, finish imploding, I am confident there will be enough unschoolers around to pick up the pieces and show the way forward. They will be the ones who will know how to think for themselves and who remember how to learn self-reliantly, how to problem-solve rather than regurgitate, how to lead rather than follow, how to ask the hard questions and pursue the answers…. They will be the ones who will help the rest create a kinder, smarter, fairer, more egalitarian world. And I guess that will mean that unschooling has “scaled up.”

Redefining Work and Money (and everything else in life)

Redefining Work and Money (and everything else in life)

Redefining work and money involves an examination of what’s important to us, how we educate ourselves, what sort of work we do, and what sort of world we want to live in.

“To find out what one really wants, and what it costs, and how to pay what it costs, is an important part of everyone’s life work. But it is not easy to find out what we like or want, when all our lives other people have been hard a work trying not just to make us do what they want, but to make us think that we want to do it.” ~John Holt, Never Too Late: My Musical Life Story

In those two sentences, from a book published in 1978 – around the time he coined the term “unschooling” – John Holt put his finger on a problem that people are feeling even more strongly today: How do we make enough money to live comfortably, how do we find work that pleases us, how do we arrange our lives to be able to afford to do that sort of work, and how can we ensure that our children won’t struggle with these questions? Those questions about redefining work and how they interrelate with the rest of life are also the basis for my life and my work.

For instance, in this 2010 article, I suggested that work is actually redefining itself. Then I looked at how kids who learn without attending school (“unschoolers”) are well prepared to thrive in a world that’s already quite different from the one in which their parents and grandparents came of age (and for which our school systems were designed). The very ideas of work and the value of money are changing in the face of social and economic upheaval, and ecological decline. Many unschoolers have quite a different – truly radical – outlook on those topics.

Charles Eisenstein wrote in his book Sacred Economics, “True wealth is sovereignty over your own time.” Control of their own time is something unschoolers develop, because their education has taught them to trust their own instincts about pursuing what is important to them. So it’s not surprising that an unschooling dad, Michael Fogler, borrowed from unschooling to coin the term “un-jobbing” and write a book about it in 1999 entitled Un-Jobbing: The Adult Liberation Handbook. He describes un-jobbing as “living the life you truly want to live without major, full-time employment and still making your ends meet.”

I’ve written about unjobbing (as I prefer to spell it) as well, since I have been doing it (while unschooling my daughters) since the mid-1970s (before either of those words was coined). One particular article prompted someone (who admitted that he dislikes his job) to comment to me that unjobbing seems to be a self-absorbed luxury. I pointed out to him that, in fact, a variety of motivations are at play for those who are trying to redefine work and income, most of them not about luxury at all:

  • Baby boomers are getting to retirement age and wanting to continue to work as a way of staying active and relevant.
  • Other people are still jobless due to the last recession or corporate downsizing, and are looking for creative ways to pay the rent.
  • Those with jobs find themselves working harder for less buying power.
  • Some people are convinced there is a need for a new type of economy and a move to things like green technologies, which are solutions for issues like climate change and resource scarcity.
  • Some people worry that more economic hard times are ahead and want to be prepared by developing greater self-reliance.
  • Still others are just plain burnt out and fed up, wondering if there’s more to life than the nine-to-five grind and are willing to trade some purchasing power and stress for a simpler, healthier, and more convivial lifestyle.
  • And then there are the parents who want to stay at home with their children or elderly parents.

Fogler identified the common ground among all these people who are redefining work when he wrote in Un-Jobbing that, “What we have going with our jobbing orientation is chronic national busy-ness (alias ‘business’), which has proven itself to be unhealthful for humans and our planetary home. We must look in another direction. We must put less emphasis on jobs and more on cooperation, simplicity, and serving one another. This may very well involve meaningful work, but that’s not the same as jobs.”

“Meaningful work” is the Buddhist path that says even the humblest job can have meaning; it’s also part of “Right Livelihood.” Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh wrote, “To practice Right Livelihood, you have to find a way to earn your living without transgressing your ideals of love and compassion. The way you support yourself can be an expression of your deepest self, or it can be a source of suffering for you and others … Our vocation can nourish our understanding and compassion, or erode them. We should be awake to the consequences, far and near, of the way we earn our living.” (The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, Parallax Press, 1998).

In a letter to the editor published in The Progressive, author and philosopher Wendell Berry took that idea a bit farther by addressing the issue of work’s quantity and quality. He said that we need to ask a variety of questions about work before we suggest people are doing too much of it: Questions like whether or not we chose our work or feel compelled to do it to earn money; about how much of our intelligence, skill, and pride is involved in our work; if we respect the result of our work; and what are the ecological and social costs of our work.

The problem my friend alluded to when he commented that unjobbing is a luxury is that although there is much important work to be done that has positive ecological and social benefits, there is often not enough willingness to pay for it. And expressing one’s deepest self, redefining work, or even worrying about the consequences of one’s work is difficult when struggling to pay the rent. That is where simple living and minimalism come in, along with developing some self-sufficiency skills so we can create or mend some of the things we cannot afford to purchase.

Economist Juliet Schor figures we will all be living that way at some point soon – in what she calls the Plenitude Economy. She wrote about it in her book Plenitude: The New Economics of True Wealth (entitled True Wealth in softcover). The Center for a New American Dream has summarized it in this video. Essentially, Schor describes her notion of a post-consumer society as redefining work and money. It is one in which people work fewer hours and pursue re-skilling, homesteading, and small-scale enterprises that can help reduce the overall size and impact of the consumer economy.

But what about those whose mental or physical health issues preclude working at any sort of job (let alone redefining work), and performing self-reliance skills or homesteading? That’s where a universal basic income comes in – an old idea that also has caught people’s imagination again, with a number of jurisdictions announcing plans to test the idea in the near future.

Whether you think all of this is a prudent reaction to confusing times or a utopian (naïve?) luxury, I see a compelling convergence of ideas in economics, education, sociology, and governance. And I think that redefining work, money, and education holds the germ of a solution for a happier, more convivial, self-reliant, better educated, restorative, “civil” civilization. At the very least, it’s hard to deny what British author and popularizer of Zen philosophy Alan Watts once wrote:

“If you say that money is the most important thing, you’ll spend your life completely wasting your time: You’ll be doing things you don’t like doing in order to go on living, that is, in order to go on doing things you don’t like doing – which is stupid!”

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.

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.