Pt. 3 Continued: More About Epiphanies

Lake of the Clouds at Dawn
Lake of the Clouds at Dawn
(This post kept getting longer and longer, so I decided to break it into 2)

My commitment to social justice as a set of values and a calling grew slowly over the first 3 decades of my life. I think the path I followed would be recognized as similar by many people, and I believe my experience illustrates the characteristics of personal change through epiphanies. Because I know my own path well, I’ll use it to illustrate the value of supporting epiphanies as part of a larger change strategy (bottom-up strategies).

Because epiphanies re-frame meaning for the individual (regardless of how many people share a particular experience),  they always remain individual in their impact. We are used to thinking about the meaning of events as impacting all participants i the same way. Of course, events don’t do this. Each person experiences an event in a way particular to their personal history and current state of being.  However, whatever the individual character of the re-framing, it affects the general system of meaning for the person sometimes for their entire life. It is this long term impact that lends strategic impact to epiphanies, though not at all like top-down victories discussed in earlier posts.

My parents came out of the depression and World War II with a commitment to equality that was typically American. They grew up in a working class neighborhood and my father was the first (and for a long time the only) person in that neighborhood who went to college. When he went to work for Dow in Midland, it was as part of professional upper middle class community and my parents found the ready devaluing of working class people offensive since it painted our entire family as inferior. They taught us that this was immoral and unacceptable.

Because of this personal, family base, Catholic social justice history made sense to me and expanded my idea of who should be able to use freedom and justice to forge their lives. The advent of the civil rights era also educated me to oppression I had not perceived before. But more important than education were the actual experiences I had as a person with a disability and as an ally to oppressed groups.

Next Post: Part 3 Cont’d: Examples of Epiphanies

Systems Thinking, Pt. 3: The Other Side of the Change Coin.

flower blossoming gentiana_asclepiadea

In the last post, I talked about top-down advocacy as an effort by advocates to change the form and content of the struggle for rights. Victories by advocates are subject to continuing  struggle as those who benefit from the status quo try to counter or undermine the victory. This cycle may result in expanded rights in the long run, but it requires a change from the innovation needed to create an advocacy victory to defending victories  won.

Bottom-up advocacy is an animal of another kind. It too produces innovation and can expand our understanding of the importance and potential of expanded freedom, but in specific individuals rather than law, rule, or policy.  This bottom-up advocacy is the experience of epiphany.

An epiphany is an experience that reveals a large scale framework of meaning to a specific person. This new framework of meaning doesn’t alter our past experience, but it can alter the meaning of our past and much beyond the apparent scope of the event that triggers the epiphany. An epiphany is often described as a revelation. It demands the reformulation of what we thought was the case. Epiphanies, small and great  and of various kinds, are a normal part of the human developmental experience. Yet, while advocates use the result of epiphanies to mobilize energy and work for top-down advocacy victories, there is a curious lack of organized effort to produce them (except by psychopaths who lead cults). We don’t have to look too far to understand why.

Politicians (very much like cult leaders) often use their speaking and motivational skills to mobilize people generally to support the politician’s personal interests (an election or a specific legal effort). The experience of campaigning to win an election or change a law can be an epiphany, but the change in the person that occurs is not about the election or the change in law. It is about the sense of expanded possibility that results from the experience. There is no guarantee that an event will dramatically expand the sense of possibility for a person. After all, that change in the sense of possibility is occurring in the heart of a single individual, and depends on the uniqueness of their development and personal experience.

I will talk about actual epiphanies in my next post. For that post, I will try to make a distinction between true and false epiphanies by using examples. The distinction has much to do with whether the epiphany reveals to you the expanded possibility for your life from living through another (a person, a political or religious entity, a book, generally some belief system) or changing how you view your possibilities and those of others whose experience of oppression is like yours.

Next Post: Pt. 3 Continued: Some Examples of Epiphanies


Advocate’s Guide to System Thinking, P. 2

Painting of River Rapids in Winter

Rapids in Winter

In my last post on Systems Thinking, I tried to point to the reality that any advocacy problem pops up in a flow of circumstance. We single out the problem from the flow because it attracts our attention. But we often fail to see the connection between the problem we experience and the flow that produced it.

When we do notice the flow as part of the problem, we tend to think that we need a top-down solution to it. Examples of top-down solutions are changes in policy, rules, and law that prohibit what we think of as the circumstances that led to the problem. In fact, this description is the typical definition of “systems advocacy” in our community.

Now we all know that changes in policy, rules, and law don’t stop similar problems from popping up. Rather, these changes give us hooks we can use in our advocacy to challenge a particular example of the problem. Which is to say that the changes make our advocacy easier.

Also, we all know that these successful changes trigger a response from the targets of our advocacy to game the new rules, to find loopholes or workarounds that reduce the need for target change. In turn, we respond by challenging this undermining of rights.

The dance of advocacy, as it were.

This dance is the core dynamic of top-down advocacy. As an advocacy tool, it has its strengths and weaknesses. One aspect of it that is unavoidable is the adversarial framework it entails. It seems that it is through challenge and response that change occurs and it is through gaming that targets challenge our successes. We might hope that the target will learn some basic lesson about rights, and I think that individuals within the target system do learn such lessons, but the dance reinforces the idea that argument or some other method of power use is the only way  or the best way to challenge oppression.

It seems to us that, since oppression was constructed through the use of power, we must use power to overcome oppressive flows. And, it is certainly true that those who use power to dominate and exploit others believe this and don’t give up that power willingly. But success in a struggle of power always leaves a residue of those who will not submit to your victory, and will immediately begin to fight against your victory generally through new methods, often ones we have not seen before.

The dance then runs something like this:

  • We challenge oppression. We do so by using innovation in our offense to  challenge our target.
  • The target responds with a defense of the status quo, largely through the use of the power it has already accumulated and secondarily through the inertia of the current flow.
  • We achieve some measure of victory. Almost immediately, the change roles of advocate and target begin to shift.
  • Now, the target is using offense and innovation to undermine and counter our victory.
  • We, in turn, are using defense to protect the victory that often required some real sacrifice on our part.
  • And so on……

In the larger window of history, I think a case can be made for overall positive change in this long dance, but as the modern civil rights movement has discovered in its half century defense of the Civil Rights Act fo 1964, it ain’t easy and you can’t take any victory  for granted ( this idea that the status quo always has an advantage over change is the weakest assumption of any defense-based strategy). There are important differences between offensive and defensive strategies. Just because we are good at offense doesn’t mean we are good at defense. Mostly in fact, if we are good at one, we are bad at the other.Yet, the dance of advocacy requires both sets of skills.

Next Post: Systems Thinking, Pt. 3: The Other Side of the Change Coin.



Advocate’s Guide to System Thinking, P. 1

Circular diagram of system modeling techniques

Systems Thinking Diagram

In the ordinary run of advocacy, an Event happens which is a violation of the rights of a person to freedom, choice, or the denial of some possibility in their life. We notice the Event and respond to it with an advocacy strategy designed to counter or reverse it.

But, as Gene Bellinger points out, events don’t just appear out of nowhere. They are the result of complex processes, and if we don’t respect the complexity that produced the event, we will trigger unintended results through our apparently obvious advocacy strategy.

This is the core of the difference between systems thinking and standard approaches to identifying and reacting to problems. But systems thinking is abstract and it isn’t taught to us when we are young enough to easily absorb it.  Instead, we are taught to view processes as objects. So the Event is divorced from the flow that produced it. And so is our response to the Event.

Imagine that you own an old house in the country. You have a “Michigan basement”. Rain tends to flood the basement. Because flooding doesn’t happen all the time, you don’t necessarily feel driven to do something permanent about it, but it is annoying. You have to do something about it.

Some options:

  • You can just wait for the basement to drain on its own
  • You can bail it out with a bucket whenever it occurs
  • You can put in a sump pump
  • You can dig a deep hole in the basement so that the flooding has less impact on most of the basement
  • You can remodel the basement so that it is sealed and no longer floods
  • You can support drought in your community so that flooding happens less often
  • You can put a huge dome over your property so less rain ends up in your yard and your basement
  • You can hire someone to do any or several of these things for you

See how advocacy is like solving any problem? The majority of options in any problem-solving effort are similar regardless of the problem:

  • You can ignore the problem
  • You can try a minimalist solution
  • You can try to prevent repetition
  • You can try to interfere with the process that leads up to the problem so it doesn’t happen to you
  • You can try to alter the entire system that makes this problem possible in the first place

Your choice has consequences aside from the effect of the solution on the problem. It has costs in your time and money, maintenance of the solution, solution failure, unintended consequences, and so on.

A solution is a choice, not just a choice from a menu but a choice embracing all the consequences of that choice whether you know them or not. Like most any problem-solving effort, advocacy is a commitment to a future that is uncertain. It is, in other words, a strategic choice, whether we treat it that way or not.

Let’s remember the definition of a strategy:

A Strategy is a framework for dealing with future uncertainty and scarce resources.

There is no privileged choice in the menu above. There is only the choice that fits your circumstances.  Systems thinking is a way of managing how you assess any advocacy choice and how well it might fit your circumstances.

Next Post: Advocate’s Guide to System Thinking, P. 2