Friday, October 26, 2007


Yesterday somebody at work made a comment that constitutes a great compliment, perhaps the greatest of all. She said that her participation in a training I had organized made her hopeful for the first time in a long time. She said that ever since the Iraq war, which she tried to prevent with all her strength as a citizen activist, she has been tired and discouraged, but she is feeling renewed hope.

Well, yay for that. But here's the problem. After six months in this job (not to mention 20 years of working for do-gooder organizations), I still have no idea how to change the world. I am apparently able to make people hope that it could be possible, but I find myself unable to pull the rabbit out of the hat. I thought perhaps that as I worked, I would arrive at a vision of activism evolved for today. I know what it's not. It's not thinly attended and unfocused protests, it's not writing your member of Congress (sadly), it's not's relentless self-promotion disguised as citizen empowerment.

And to be fair, I am not the only one daunted by this task. In an exhaustive piece of research well-known within the social sector, Robert Putnam demonstrated in Bowling Alone that nearly all forms of civic participation are in sharp decline. Assembling an astonishing array of data and surveys across nearly a century, he shows that participation in a wide range of "social capital" activities rose sharply from WWII through the 1970s, and has been in a nose-dive ever since. This holds for voting, political party and union membership, religious attendance, charitable giving, civic and social clubs, PTAs, and even team sports, card games and dinner parties. The trend line masks an even more pronounced drop in participation, because older Americans participate more actively than younger ones. This is not a matter of retired people having more time - in which case we would expect every generation to become more engaged as they age. Rather, people born in the 1930s have always been more engaged than those born in the 1940s and 1950s, who in turn have always been more engaged than the next generation, and so on.

Thus, my lack of a vision as to how to galvanize the people to take back our country is not just me. I'm trying to buck a very big trend.

So here I sit, having committed the great sin of generating hope with nothing to back it up. I've never been the inspired-and-inspiring sort of leader. Probably the most common thing said about me professionally is that I "keep the trains running on time" or I "make people feel calm." My boss once said he hired me for this job because I'm "a builder, not a barn-burner," meaning that he was looking for someone to do patient spade work, not inflame the masses. Ok. I'm doing my spade work. NOW WHAT?

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