How I Believe Change Happens:

Noncooperation With Evil Systems, Cooperation with God

Michael Bischoff, 11/19/00



Today I have in my mind images of smashed windows, protesters trapped in a tunnel by police, pepper spray aimed down someone's mouth, guns shooting rubber pellets, and anarchists playing soccer in the streets.Yesterday I arrived back from a week in Cincinnati, where I was helping lead trainings to prepare activists for protests of the Trans-Atlantic Business Dialogue.Today protests in Cincinnati continue to happen, both legal marches and civil disobedience.I would like to use my experiences and discussions from this past week to frame this essay about my theory of how social change happens.My interactions with people in Cincinnati helped define and provide contrast for many of my beliefs about what is effective in bringing about social change.I hope the tactics and strategies used at these protests give tangible meaning to my understanding of social change.


I went to Cincinnati mostly because an important mentor of mine, George Lakey, asked me to go.George has been doing training and organizing with grassroots activists for the past forty years and he is one of my favorite examples of what I want to be when I grow up.This past decade, George has focused mostly on building the capacity of activists across the world to act more strategically, powerfully, and sustainably.I have taken several workshops with George and I have grown to cherish his encouragement, challenge, and love.George has written quite a bit about his theory of revolutionary social change and how it can be brought about through nonviolent direct action.A formal outline of his theories is in a book of his called Powerful Peacemaking (Phil.: New Society Publishers, 1987).


I went with George and two other trainers to lead workshops on strategy in nonviolent campaigns, conflict escalation and de-escalation, consensus decision making, and how race and class influence our protests.The protests this week in Cincinnati are aimed to challenge the Trans-Atlantic Business Dialogue (TABD).The TABD is made of up major CEOs and government trade officials from the U.S. and European Union.Their stated purpose is to reduce economic and regulatory barriers to free trade.Reducing environmental, labor, and other ethical guidelines for trade is also part of their agenda.The agenda of the World Trade Organization (WTO) is mostly set by the TABD, and almost all recommendations of the TABD are accepted by the WTO.The protesters were there for many different reasons, but all shared a concern about undemocratic corporate control of international policies that harmed people and the environment.We also all wanted to shine a light on the TABD so their work was not as much in the shadows as it usually is.


I brought many assumptions and biases about how change works to these trainings that were not always shared by the protesters who were there.I believe that nonviolence is the most effective tool we have for bringing about long term, positive change.I define nonviolence in more flowery and soft terms than most of our participants would.I see the essence of nonviolence as loving our opponents and loving ourselves and acting from that base.†† I believe that the goal of nonviolence is to cooperate with God's movement in the world, which is primarily expressed as love.I see all peace as coming from God, and ultimately beyond human control.I think of the disciplines of nonviolence as ways to open ourselves and our society up to the divine, natural movement toward justice and the beloved community.My focus on "love your enemy" was a bit different than the "smash the corporate state" attitude in many protesters.While I see resistance, non-cooperation, and direct action as important tools for change, my broader framework was different than the mainstream worldview in these demonstrations.


I tend to be skeptical of theories in general, and especially something as broad as a universal theory of how change happens.As the Tao Te Ching says, "The way that can be named is not the true way."So I don't bring an assumption that I have a comprehensive theory of change.I do find reflecting on the assumptions we bring to social change very helpful, and I am increasingly finding theories helpful in preparing for work in conflict and social change.I will lay out what I see as five key stages and elements of intentional, society-wide social change.The stages are set up to be sequential, but they also happen simultaneously and repeat themselves.These categories are based loosely on George Lakey's thinking and writing, but I've adapted them to fit my thinking.I will also fit in examples from the recent protests in Cincinnati and the broader movement challenging some parts of economic globalization.


Stage 1:Cultural Preparation


An initial element needed for tranformative change is an analysis of what is harmful and unjust about the current system.Where are power inequities?Who is being harmed?Who is benefiting from that harm?What are the structural conditions that perpetuate the harm?As these questions are answered, they need to be discussed widely in the society we wish to change.Within the globalization movement, a general critique that corporate power is out of control is wide spread, but the specifics of this analysis are often fuzzy.This general, intuitive knowledge of economic injustice has been strong enough, across the world, to motivate many mass actions and broad coalitions.Some key groups that create and reinforce this structure have been identified, such as the World Trade Organization, and identification of more and more groups that conspire with this system, such at the TABD are being identified and challenged.


Just as important as the analysis, however, is developing visions of alternatives.The anti-globalization movement has, overall, done a very poor job of this.In workshops with the protesters, I asked several times about our proposed alternatives to the WTO and TABD.The general response was that these organizations weren't needed and should be abolished, and more economic control should remain local.I believe our visions for alternatives are, thus far, fuzzy, naive, and not widely communicated.In one workshop, we talked about how the direct actions that happen could also be building visions for alternatives.One participant suggested holding an alternative open forum in the park outside of the hotel where the TABD was meeting.In that forum, guidelines could be developed for what people there want the conditions of world trade to be.Once those guidelines were developed, some people might risk arrest in bringing those suggestions onto the stage of the TABD.†† I believe that until more compelling and realistic alternative visions are developed, this movement will not go much further.


In addition to analysis and vision, this stage also requires ways for oppressed people to be building their confidence and capacity to work for change.In addition to our plans for change, we need to have an internal sense that we deserve the change that we are asking for.Many kinds of art, education, and dialogue that are participatory and based in the community are useful in helping this happen.I partly see this as spiritual preparation for change, which allows churches and religious organizations to play key roles.†† Recent protests in Seattle, DC, Prague, and other places seem to have built the will and confidence of many to work for change in this area, but a much broader sense of participation will be needed for eventual change.


Most of the work I did prior to coming to CTP was with the Alternatives to Violence Project, doing workshops on conflict transformation in prisons and elsewhere.I saw that work as firmly in this stage, preparing the cultural groundwork for widespread change.This form of popular education often allowed self-confidence and community to be built, preparing for spreading that spirit outside of the workshop.Although the workshops focused on interpersonal conflict and communication, it was useful for me to see them in the context of wider social change.One reason I am at CTP is to more explicitly connect skill-building workshops like those with the broader movements of peacebuilding and social change.


Although there are many useful tactics for this preparation, I believe the essence of it is the movement of the spirit of God among a people that have a capacity for change.For me, personal and corporate prayer is the most direct way into the Spirit.We can ask God for it and follow its movement.To develop an internal connection with this Spirit is only a first step, though.As the song says, "This little light of mine, I'm going to let it shine, let is shine . . . "



Stage 2: Building Organization


Since my focus here is on social change and not just personal change, there is a need to form groups to live and act out the patterns of a new social order.It is a temptation of mine to only seek personal growth for myself and my immediate communities and stop there.But as Martin Luther King, Jr. and many others have said, our liberation is intricately tied to everyone else's.No one can be truly free until everyone is.There is a need to build coalitions and allies, with the socially privileged and the oppressed, with peers and strangers, to make this society a reality.


I think that the recent anti-globalization movement has brought many innovative, useful models of organizing with it.The demonstrations in Seattle last year were very decentralized and done for many reasons, but carried the unity of being in the same place at the same time and sharing a challenge to the same institution.The demonstrations and the organizing that led up to it were chaotic, unpredictable, large, and self-organizing.This decentralized character has been reflected in protests on the streets.One of my co-trainers in Cincinnati, Betsy Raasch-Gilman has said this about the recent protests of the WTO, World Bank, and IMF:


We marched through the streets without permits, without established parade routes, and without peacekeepers and armbands. The center of leadership in the crowds shifted constantly; I couldn't tell how decisions were being made, and actually in the moment it didn't seem to matter.


A challenge of this decentralized approach is that it sometimes makes it very hard to understand the purpose of a demonstration from a distance.But the advantages of allowing many, diverse groups to be in alliance is very powerful.It also allows connections to be made between environmental, labor, peace, and other activists.I believe there a dynamic future is this organizing that seems chaotic from a distance, but beneath the surface, is organically bringing together many interconnected issues.


At the demonstrations in Cincinnati, there were basically three different groups organizing around the TABD meetings.One of the groups, Coalition for a Human Economy, held teach-ins and a march approved by the police.The group I was doing the trainings with, Cincinnati Direct Action Collective, supported the legal marches, but encouraged affinity groups to do their own, additional actions.A third group, the Black Block, also worked in affinity groups and were not opposed to property destruction during protests.There was certainly some tension between the tactics each group chose to use, but they attempted to communicate with each other and compliment the other's actions.


One major barrier to organizing wider support within the two direct action groups was what they called "security culture."Because of the police responses that happened in Seattle and DC, people have become very careful about undercover police trying to subvert their plans.To compensate for this, many protesters use nicknames (such as "Tofubear") instead of their real names and they don't trust any newcomers unless they are vouched for by someone else.Not trusting newcomers makes it very difficult for a movement to grow!In many of the workshops we led, the issue came up, and this paranoia seems deeply entrenched in this wing of the anti-globalization movement.†† I would guess that, unless this secrecy changes, these groups will be short lived and remain marginal.


Beyond the need to create a wide-spread movement, there is a need to develop alternatives institutions which create examples of the kind of change we are asking for.That is, if we are objecting to corporation supermarkets being poor stewards of the land or employees, we need to have food coops or businesses that show that the ethical guidelines we are asking for can actually be demonstrated.Every kind of organization has the opportunity to take on this purpose, of having their way of doing business reflect the patterns and structures they want to see in the world.But, as Gandhi said, unless constructive programs are linked to mass movements for fundamental change, they can become mere charity.


Stage 3: Confrontation


After building cultural and organizational capacity, we have the power to stand up for what we are asking for.In the simplest forms of asking, maybe the visions proposed are adopted by decision makers after they first are proposed.Maybe letter writing, the electoral process, or other established forms of change will bring the change needed.But this model of change carries the assumption that those with unjust power rarely give up that privilege voluntarily and without resistance.I also believe that moments of transformation are a gift of grace and can come at unexpected times.


I see confrontation as not just a chance to prove someone wrong or shout someone down, but a chance to further discover and make known the truth of a situation.†† For instance, when African-Americans did sit-ins at segregated lunch counters during the civil rights movement, they succeeded no matter what happened.If they were arrested or beaten, that demonstrated the injustice of the system.If they were allowed to stay and eat, they achieved the change they were looking for.Ideally, I see nonviolent confrontation risking transformation of both the ones asking for change and the opponents, out of which justice may arise.


Retaliation and some form of violence from the structure that we are challenging seems inevitable.†† The question is how we engage and work with this resistance.Certainly movement after movement has utilized images of oppression from their actions as catalysts to bring wider participation to their cause.If we have the discipline to "take it" without resorting to violence, and are also able to frame the violence done to us in a strategic way, this can be one of our greatest powers.


My belief is that the universe naturally bends towards justice, and our job is to align ourselves with that natural flow.For this reason, the risk of retaliation, arrest, or humiliation relies on the faith that; as we risk suffering for what we see as true, other forces will also help bring the truth to the light.Those risks help spark other risks and support that further bring what is true to the light.


The anti-globalization movement has had a plenitude of confrontation in the past two years.The large momentum that came out of the Seattle WTO protests is still spreading to many other places.This momentum feels alive and powerful, and like it is searching for a more focused expression.In some ways, we are in a rut, using the same tactics that were used in Seattle.Confrontations in the streets with police are dramatic, get lots of media attention, and shoot up the adrenaline.†† They can be addictive, but confrontations can also be an impetus to dig into the other elements of effective social change.It is my hope that the energy of the protests will continue but also lead to creative visioning, analysis, and outreach.


One large disagreement within the protesters at Cincinnati and elsewhere has been about the appropriateness of property destruction during protests.In Cincinnati, a couple windows were smashed, and that is what made the headlines and overshadowed the rest of the tactics used.In my thinking about change, one important criteria is that the methods of change be consistent with the ends we are working toward.I also want to take risks and create disruptions that demonstrate what we are asking for.The vast majority of people involved in these demonstrations would agree with me that property destruction is not helpful, but the few people who are comfortable with property "enhancement" are there.This is certainly one of the dilemmas of such a decentralized movement.



Stage 4: Mass Non-cooperation:


The idea that real social power rests with the mass of people, who can choose to either cooperate or not cooperate with governance is a compelling one to me.After a vision and analysis leads to a popular movement which confronts the status quo system, people might be ready to fully take away their cooperation with the old system.As that non-cooperation is truly wide spread, it is very hard to stop, even with force.It is delightful to see example after example of this at national levels recently, such as in Serbia this fall.††


Having been involved with discussions at EMU about homosexuality recently, I have been having fantasies about non-cooperation with EMU's discrimination against gay/lesbian folks.There are so many ways EMU is dependent on people's cooperation:on donors giving money, staff going to work, students paying tuition, the public having a positive image of the school, etc.I know that there is much more needed in stages 1-3 in this situation, but the idea of a student strike or something like that to make EMU a welcoming place excites me.Of course, I could still hold my own strike or refusal to pay tuition, and that might have some effect, but, as with all these steps, the timing is very pivotal for effectiveness.There is such power in choosing not to cooperate with a harmful system!


The anti-globalization movement has not come to the point of mass non-cooperation and doesn't seem to have widely conceptualized it.One barrier seems to be a lack of hope that wide spread change of global economic forces can actually happen.It might take decades of small protests and thinking of alternatives before true mass non-cooperation happens.Smaller versions of non-cooperation with the expectations of a profit and growth-driven economic system will need to happen all along the way though, as we choose to live without material gain leading us.


I see the tactic of non-cooperation as very tied to the Biblical concept of "being in the world but not of the world."If our true allegiance is to a holy, guiding Spirit, that is reflected in how we live.I believe radical change needs to be rooted in a lack of cooperation with our own egos, and, instead a cooperation with what is divine in us.†† I think that without this simultaneous self-transformation, any social transformation will be hollow.I have many friends I admire who are war tax resisters--people who refuse to pay federal taxes because their conscience won't allow them to support violence of any kind, including the U.S. military.This action is very spiritually based for them.These small acts of conscience seem to pave the way for wider, mass non-cooperation.



Stage 5:Implementing Alternative Institutions


On the national, revolutionary scale, stage five is when the old government is falling and transformed alternatives are being put in place.Of course, if these alternatives have not been in development all along the process, there is very little hope that it will be sustainable and different than what it replaced.How many times has a revolution happened where the new government quickly replicated the violence and injustice of the old model?I think this is an argument for how closely the means of change need to the tied to the ends we are working for.


On smaller scales of reform, the alternative institutions might not be whole new governments.At EMU, I would be happy for the institution to be transformed enough to having policies welcoming of all sexual orientations.I believe that change will gradually come to be without a revolutionary overthrow of the current administration.But those changes in policies alone won't do much good--we need a great amount of the cultural preparation to help our behavior and attitudes live up to those policies.


Whether the social change process is a gentle reform or a complete structural reshaping, I see stage five as the implementation of the driving vision.Of course, this implementation is not the final stage of any process.In some ways, the change that lead up to this stage were the easy part.Now there is the challenge of making it work in day to day practice.As we keep experimenting, there we will usually be cycling back through the all of the cycles.I don't imagine this as a static process where we eventually end up with one successful product--but an evolving, creative process where we keep adjusting and striving for what is true to our visions.In some ways, I see this stage as just a different view ofthe second preparation stage.We must always be living out the vision of how we want the world to be.Change happens as that vision becomes more infectious and spreads in widening circles.


My belief is that the beloved community that we are striving for already exists, and is actually reflective of our deepest natures, individually and collectively.Our task is mostly to uncover that reality and invite it into practice.Maybe when we sit still long enough to notice what is deeply there, in our organizations or in ourselves, justice and peace will emerge.The organizationaldevelopment model of Appreciative Inquiry seems to reflect some of these assumptions.If we focus on what is really working now and what we love, we can let that grow to become the dominant experience.





Although I am trying to describe a semi-coherent theory of how social change works, I hope I don't take myself too seriously.†† I don't believe any one person can fully conceptualize how change works, either personally or globally---I don't think that really comes without God's perspective.I experience the essence of change as mystery and a gift that is too big and too interconnected to be broken into stages.I see my main job being to be centered in the presence of God, and act out of that center.Being in touch with God is hard enough.To see the world from God's perspective seems too much to ask!But I hope the presumptuousness of seeing from God's perspective doesn't stop me from moving in that direction.I believe sketching the movement of that Spirit can help us follow it, but I plan to keep an eraser handy, and keep moving with the flow of water.


In addition to the obvious influence of George Lakey and others who have developed similar models, I know my cultural experience has greatly defined how I see change happening.This view is very rooted in me being a 29 year old, white, middle-class, Quaker, male from the U.S. in the year 2000.I have never faced real physical violence personally.I know that would shake down my lofty concepts, and I hope that it would shake them closer to what is true.I also have not experienced ongoing, intense social oppression or bigotry.My work for social change has been done with many privileges and comforts and has yet to have serious threats.


I have a tension in myself about how I want to theorize about the change I am working for.One side of me, which is more expressed in this paper, wants to remain focused on radical structural change.I think that change needs to be integrated into systems, culture, and institutions in order for it to sustainable--and I think there needs to be a long term strategy to help that happen.This is why I went to help with the protests in Cincinnati.I want to join the fighting party for the overthrow of the status quo because the powerful will never give up their power without a struggle.Another part of me remains very focused on simply loving people around me.This side of me has a faith that any loving interpersonal interactions or peace-filled small communities will naturally ripple out to help foster a peaceful society and nation.From this vantage point, the only meaningful way to make change is though one on one relationships.


Of course, this is not an either/or question.I do see the need for both loving people near me and structural change--and I have tried to integrate these two aspects in this paper.And in going to Cincinatti, I want to teach and practice that love is the only substance that can deconstruct violent systems.But in looking for this integration, I still feel an emotional tension and strain.It feels as though there is false dichotomy within me, and something in that barrier needs to break.On an experiential level, I have a ways to go toward integrating personal and social change.I am also not entirely comfortable in the ways my religious and secular descriptions of change fit together.I sometimes throw in a connection to God's role in a process just to make myself feel better.My thinking and acting does not often come out of an integrated center.


With all of these qualifications, there are still things I know about change.I know there is a power in the world which can transform a potentially violent situation into a peaceful one.I know that I can be held in prayer by a group of people around me and feel my heart soften.I know I have changed the most when people around me look for the best in me and invite it to come out.I know that times of immense chaos and overwhelming confusion sometimes wear down my defenses and grace comes in.I know that facing what I am afraid of usually makes my stomach really tight, and when I survive it feels real good.


I know that when I have been thinking too hard about something, I can climb into my wife's arms, and breathe easily.I know that sometimes when I am thinking least about change, that is when it happens.


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