An ongoing challenge for us activist organizers is that the route to winning takes people out of their comfort zones. The positive side is not only that the campaign gets a chance to win, but also that enduring discomfort usually strengthens people — it puts them in touch with their power.
Sports trainers know this just as well as social change organizers do. The question for all of us is: How do we persuade people to tolerate it?
Discovering the power of empowerment
A call came in from a union organizer in Reading, Pennsylvania, not far from Philadelphia. The employees of a nursing home were on strike against the Canada-based multinational corporation that had recently bought it. The workers felt they were being abused and management was refusing to negotiate in good faith. They’d decided they needed to escalate their struggle by adding the tactic of civil disobedience.
This was 1983, and I asked Barbara Smith to co-facilitate the training workshop the union requested. Barbara had recently come on board the Philadelphia Jobs with Peace Campaign to help me manage it. Jobs with Peace was an interracial alliance of labor, neighborhood groups, environmentalists and peace activists. While Barbara was enthusiastic about coalition-building, she wanted to learn the training game as well. She pointed out that she had teaching experience and, as a Black woman, could broaden our training capacity, which was heavily white.
With her large, expressive eyes and commanding presence, Barbara attracted attention as easily as breathing. Already I’d found that she had a great nose for bullshit, as well as an actor’s flair for knowing when to confront it with anger and when to confront it with charm. Barbara also knew how to integrate theory; unlike some trainers who dispense theory in lofty clumps not likely to be applied, Barbara ran each social change principle through her own life experience. The result was a series of stories, metaphors and idiomatic expressions of mother-wit that grounded discussion and made it real.
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