Beyond resistance: Creating a better world here and now

| July 22, 2011
Beyond resistance: Creating a better world here and now

Welcome to's extended series on the Canadian left -- Reinventing democracy, reclaiming the commons: A progressive dialogue on the future of Canada -- a look at where it stands after the 2011 federal election, and what the future can hold. The series will run in this,'s 10th year, and is curated by journalist Murray Dobbin.

Let me say, at the risk of seeming ridiculous, that the true revolutionary is guided by great feelings of love.

- Che Guevera

I have spent the last year mostly away from the mad activism that has characterized much of my adult life. After the G20 and its aftermath, I decided I needed a break. It was finally time to write the memoir that I had wanted to write for several years. So I decided to take three months totally off from activism. It turned out I needed more time. With some exceptions, I have stepped back from organizing, blogging and most speaking. You may be surprised that during that time, when Rob Ford was elected mayor of Toronto and Stephen Harper, prime minister, I have become more hopeful about possibility of actually making the world a better place.

So I am in a reflective mood. While others in this series have concentrated on more short-term goals, I want to talk about the kind of transformation we need in ourselves in order to help lead the profound transformations that are necessary for the world we want. The transformations that I think are necessary now go well beyond the overthrow of capitalism that was my focus for decades or even the smashing of the patriarchy, which we talked about but had little idea of how to actually accomplish. Now I think we have to end domination of every type and that means that we have to change the way we treat each other and the earth.

It is important to recognize that times have changed and break out of the rote responses to attacks that has become a habit with many of us. My generation understands what it means to have social power and how it can change things even without political power. In my case, I was involved in the anti-war movement that made a major contribution to ending the war in Vietnam, the student movement that transformed the university and its governance, and the women's movement that made a revolution in the ability of women to be agents in their own lives on a global scale. And mobilizations can still have a powerful role to play in the transformations to come. One example is the way in which the mobilizations after the G20 arrests helped reverse an almost universal support of the police action. But mobilization alone even when combined with elegant theory is not enough.

As one of my favourite writers on the left, Robert Jensen, points out in his thought provoking essay, The Power and Limits of Social Movements, "The potential power of social movements at this moment in history flows from this commitment to speaking the truth -- not truth to power, which is too invested in its delusions to listen -- but truth to each other."

In that spirit, I want to say that our problem is not in the Right, it is in ourselves. Most people in this country and indeed around the world recognize the problems of capitalist society and dislike its inequality, its greed, its unfairness on every level. Most of them are not fighting it because they don't see an alternative that makes sense yet. In some places, like the Middle East today, things are so bad that they are willing to fight without knowing the outcome. In others like in Latin America and even in the U.S., there is inspiring leadership on the Left but it too often gets mired in the powerful structures of global capitalism because the power of social movements is not strong enough to counter the power of the corporate elite. And capitalism doesn't seem to have the flexibility it once had to adapt to and co-opt movements for social justice.

We on the Left are relying too much on old ideas and old practices that worked in a time of expansion of global capitalism. In fact, change is happening in multiple ways that are different from the past whether on the Internet or in communities. For example, Wikipedia and Wikileaks, both non-profit ventures outside of traditional media circles have deeply challenged the monopoly of information held by the corporate media. Projects like Transition Towns that are creating alternative ways of living more at harmony with the earth are spreading at a local and global level. Not everyone engaged in building alternatives to savage capitalism consider themselves on the Left, for one thing. For another, the powers that be no longer have the flexibility they once had to co-opt various forms of social change. Their failure to come up with even the pretence of a solution to climate change not to mention their failure to solve the deepening economic crisis are signs of that.

Or as my friend, filmmaker Velcrow Ripper, explains more poetically in a recent piece that appeared on these pages "We need stories rooted in a fierce love, which means boldly facing the heartbreak of species extinction, of human suffering, of ecosystem collapse, while celebrating the explosion of compassion, love and possibility that is rising all over this trembling globe."

Facing the heartbreak

What does it mean to face the heartbreak and human suffering? We on the Left have been great at analyzing the problems, but that is not the same. Whenever I participate in a group that is dealing with people's feelings about the state of the world or their lives, there seems to be a deep well of sadness in almost every person whatever their gender or race. Men and women like me often cover it up with anger but it is sadness, nevertheless, heartbreak as Velcrow says. In our patriarchal culture, including on the Left, expressing anger is acceptable but sadness is not.

Kahlil Gibran was a poet much loved by new age hippies in the 1960s. I didn't pay much attention to his wisdom in those days because of the sharp divide between politicos and hippies. In his poem Joy and Sorrow he says:

Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.

And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears.

And how else can it be?

The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.

If we never express our sadness and pain how can we feel the joy? And if we don't feel and express the joy, how can we persuade people that the transformations we seek will make their lives better.

I remember one tweet from those heady days in Tahrir Square last winter when the people's revolution was at its height, "Tahrir Square is love personified." It said. It was not only the courage and the passion that was contagious but also the joy. Everyone's cynicism in the possibility of change was overcome, not only in Egypt but globally.

More and more people are realizing that changing ourselves is an important part of changing the world. There is nothing new in these ideas, the women's movement long ago said the personal is political, but I want to go further than these political ideas, which remain significant, to the notion that all of us were raised in a highly dysfunctional society from the perspective of human connection.

In addition to the sadness about the state of society and of nature, almost all of us whatever oppression we might have experienced for social or economic reasons suffer from some kind of deep personal wounds. And if we don't face that sadness, that pain, we will inflict it on ourselves and others in a way that is hurtful. Much of the dysfunction on the Left comes not from political differences which can be creative and productive but from people acting out this pain. We become part of the problem instead of the part of the solution.

I was in therapy at the time when I was most busy and most recognized as an activist. I went through a lot of change both from the activism and from the therapy but I kept the therapy private. Only a few close friends knew what I was going through. We have privatized our emotional problems. Our opponents in the corporate elite use their considerable resources to make sure their top executives get the kind of management training that deals with inter-personal problems but with the exception of the anti-violence movement, we have mostly privatized this essential part of changing the world.

Several years ago, I was lucky enough to be invited to be part of the Art of Leadership, a training programme created by Robert Gass, the founder of Rockwood Leadership Institute that focuses on leading from the inside out. Robert has combined the knowledge of personal development, spiritual wisdom, and analyses of power and processes of systems change to create transformational leadership training programs. Over the past decade, Rockwood has been training hundreds of social movement leaders mostly in the U.S. but also in Canada. As one who benefited from the training, I can tell you that it made a huge difference in my work and in my life. More importantly, I have been meeting Rockwood graduates who are bringing these methods into the work or their organizations, unions and communities.The impact is significant, opening up a new level of creativity and exposing the heartbreak for collective healing. At the U.S. Social Forum in Detroit last summer, for example, a new transformational change caucus was formed.

Robert defines transformation change as a change that cannot be reversed. It requires change at a personal, behavioural and structural level. If you change at just one of those levels, the change can be reversed. And it's not just Rockwood now focusing on personal and behavioural change. Non-Violent Communication training deals with many of the same issues. In Canada there is a new project trying to bring together several transformational methods like NVC called the Inner Activist. More and more people are starting to deal with the reality that if we want to change the world we need to change ourselves and our organizations.

To be continued...

The second half of Judy Rebick's essay, which will appear Friday July 29, will discuss some directions for structural change that is so necessary for transformation. Her blog can be found here

To link other stories from Reinventing democracy, reclaiming the commons: A progressive dialogue on the future of Canada -- please click here.



I agree. The best way to promote change is to act humane and be human to one another. We are human being first, above all else.

More and more people need to realize that they don't need to fly to Gabriola Island and register for an "Inner Activist" program at $13,500 (Corporate rate add 20%) to buy their credibility as an orgnanizer or an activist. Holy jeez, Judy, you really don't get it, do you? True transformation comes through love, not from a course or a pundit or a guru or a book or a sabbatical or a seem to be getting that idea but only intellectually, not experientially. You are repeating your own fallacies. Please truly take a little time longer to stew on the essence of these ideas and refrain from stealing the podiums, as your habit persists. Get dirty. Donate some of your security. Live with less. Do yourself this favour, in the name of transformation, in the spirit of love.



thanks Judy for your encouraging statement regarding, "social power and how it can change things even without political power".  It seems the Algonquins of Barriere Lake know this.  

social power also includes the power to retain Medicare, to stop cuts or privatization of public insurance and mental health therapies.



As an old leftie from the same era, I am truly happy to see a discussion about what we want. Over the years there has been constant debate over who was going to be the vanguard leading the workers to the promised land. Endless arguments about how many anarchists can fit on the head of a pin.


We have been trapped inside a box of our own making. A box made of correct and not-correct; of simple solutions to complex problems. And, as Brigette says, it's time to get outside the box.


I am enouraged by your willingness to start a discussion, and I look forward to the next installment in the hope that it doesn't revert to the political becoming totally personal. I have been inspired recently by OTPOR!, by Tahrir, and by Quebec Solidaire (and also by the sit-in at the White House).


The changes we seek are political, economic, social, personal, and spiritual (sort of like the 60s - but more focussed).


I am glad a discussion has started.  Of course the changes we seek are on all planes.  My point is that my generation of activists tend to separate the political from the personal and I think we have to go at both at the same time.  For example, recently in Florida during the mobilizations against a right wing government trying to bring in cutbacks and roll backs, people not only spent days in mobilization but also had meetings to work through conflict and trauma issues that emerged during that mobilization.  That's one of the things I;m talking about.

The kind of personal attack that Gabriel is engaging is just the kind of problem I am talking about in the article.  I am well aware that I have privilege.  It is ridiculous to suggest that I am trying buy credibility.  What I am doing is trying to share that privilege by sharing knowledge that I have gained both through my activist experience and through some learnings at Rockwood and Hollyhock and yes from the Inner Activist.   I have spoken to the people organizing the Inner Activist about how they can democratize what they are doing by making it more affordable and accessible.  Instead of denouncing them for elitism,  I think it's more useful to ackowledge what they have to offer and try and find a way to share that knowledge more broadly.

I think Pixel's points are very taken.  Some of us have spent way too much energy debating who has the correct line or the best policy and denouncing the others and not enough figuring out how to mobilize and inspire the broad numbers of people we need to make lasting change.  It's only by this kind of broad social and political engagement that we will be able to find the paths that will lead to transformational change

Most of my experience in community organizing has centred on values. My first transformative organizing experience was with the United Workers Association in Baltimore, an organization of low-wage workers working to end poverty. The group focuses its efforts on three sets of values: respect, dignity and the sanctity of human life. Bounded within these values is love, which was a guiding force for the organization. While members were serious about resisting the economic system that was in a constant war with their lives, it was love that connected members and provided strength for the organization as a whole. The organization was secular, but most of its members and staff were deeply of faith - Christian, Muslim and Jewish. This faith was expressed openly, another source of orgnaizational strength. By allowing the fullness of members' lives to be expressed (including the political, family, community and faith parts of their lives) the same love that was part of members' daily lives, that sustained members through many hardships, was expressed in our work together.  I think it means a lot when opponents to oppressive economic systems start with the assertion that all human life is equally sacred, and then grapple with the implications of this belief.

While love was at the heart of the organization, so was a willingness to fight. Dr King put it best when he said "Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic." King said this in the context of building "power of the Black ghetto" to a group of religous leaders. We wanted to challenge the idea that power itself was an evil, having power is essential to combat evil and being powerfless makes it impossible to do good. The United Workers Association effectively forced the state government to end the practice of paying workers at a public stadium $4.50 an hour (in 2004), moving the wage up to the state's living wage of over $12.00 (starting in 2007, and pegged to inflation). Workers at the stadium would of been exempted from the state law - but following a three year campaign 14 members and allies said they'd go on hunger strike if the state didn't reverse course. On the eve of the worker imposed deadline, the governor of Maryland reversed course and backed the living wage for stadium workers. This fight was long, sustained and at times nasty. But we, as an organization, attempted to remain grounded in love and in the positive vision of ending poverty.

I am now organizing child care workers, and am grateful that my previoius work has been rooted in values of love. I cannot imagine organizing around child care without any other purpose. The values of the organization I know work with - the Liberation Learning Project - are unconditional respect, universal dignity and shared responsbility. The vision is every family and child supported, so that families have more time together. This is a powerfull message - the idea that fighting for families to have time together matters enough to get organized and create the social supports required to make this a reality.

Social movement organizing has the benefit of requiring a postitive vision, something to create together. I don't think it's possible for a social movement to form and express itself powerfully without such a vision. I also believe that effective social movement organizing requires not only a positive vision, but that's truly transformative. By transformative I mean that it not only involves interests, but transcends interests to include the common good. I believe that value-driven efforts, such as the value of life as sacred or the value of families have more time together, are not only more effective but also more meaningful and worthwhile causes to win.

Tom Kertes

My comment was not meant as a personal attack, Judy. I've seen you in action, I know you have power, and heart, and soul, and you're incredibly articulate and passionate and sincere and clearly well-intentioned. In fact my position is aiming to be true to the very process that you are dictating by your essay:

Re. "We on the Left are relying too much on old ideas and old practices that worked in a time of expansion of global capitalism." I am suggesting that you are doing the same. Flying about to conferences and courses are getting us nowhere. We have all the knowledge and information and ideas and networking abilities that we need right here and right now, at our fingertips. These forays are nothing but excuses and distractions to take us away from ourselves and our true intentions.

Re. "If we never express our sadness and pain how can we feel the joy?" This applies in other ways too. For instance, "If we never express our concerns or dissatisfaction with our habitual patterns of malaise and dysfunction, how can we move forward to achieve our goals?" It is ultimately about truth, and freedom of expression, and sincerity, and being able to talk about how we in the so-called Left are not living up to our own calibre and expectations. Why is that? And what can we do about it?

This discussion needs to happen. I suggest it starts with a truthful and honest inward examination of our own insecurities and attachments to material wealth, property, lifestyle and convenience.



I might add, do you really think we need another book, or another movie, to make a difference???



"during the mobilizations against a right wing government trying to bring in cutbacks and roll backs, people not only spent days in mobilization but also had meetings to work through conflict and trauma issues that emerged during that mobilization"

this would be great !

many who used to participate in mobilizations do not now because of trauma and conflict that emerged during mobilizations.

i used to organize buses of young and old to participate in mobilizations however the incessant propaganda and ignorance of some who hailed the 'Supreme Soviet' and bolshevism, of some who flew the flags of groups and parties which admired Lenin, even the ignorance of some mobilization organizers, and my own ignorance, combined in frustrating and overwhelming experiences.  I don't see groups flying the Swastika and distributing Nazi propaganda at coalition mobilizations in Canada, perhaps because enough activists and society at large have become sufficiently educated and vocal in their opposition.  The same needs to occur regarding Soviet atrocities.

Also, when 'diversity of tactics' is not thoroughly worked through before, during and after mobilizations, the combination of internal conflict and external police violence has simply made attendance at mobilizations too traumatic.

i've said much of this before.

I didn't know much previously about the alternatives, grounded in indigenous cultures, which were undermined by even the provisional government.  I still don't know enough, and would like to know more.  The responsibility to educate oneself is for everyone though, and it seems that after almost a century now, all participants in mobilizations have this responsibility.

"The War and Ukrainian Democracy" by Hryhorijiv, 1945, compiles documents and reviews from the last century and much earlier.  I've read some of its interesting perspectives and am hoping to find time to read more, about a democratic spirit which, if understood by activists today, might help to clarify misunderstandings and common ground.

This democratic spirit, even in 1917, voiced measures useful for today: in "the words of the Constitution of the Ukrainian People's Republic...'Every nationality living in Ukraine has a right, to national and personal autonomy'".  Hrushevsky, voted leader of the Ukrainian National/People's Republic, said in March 1917, "The defenders of Ukrainian nationality shall never become nationalists.  The rights of national minorities shall be assured....Mohammedans and other nationalities...will have proportional representation in our autonomous organs of government." (p.60/61).

There is no doubt that there are serious problems.  I would call it a "longing for heaven".  But, if one does not believe in heaven, that this is all there is, then the sadness is truly profound. When one looks human nature directly in the eye, it is actually more than just sad, it is quite hopeless and no amount of community organizing, political involvement, activism, leadership training or getting in touch with our "inner activist" can change this reality.  

John Paul 2 reminded the world to "Be Not Afraid".  The Christian response is to continue to build this "civilization of love" in the great hope that this "heaven" we long for is also running to meet us.  

After years of anxiously trying to be a "world changer" my sadness at the state of the world has changed to a joyful hope.  But it only happened because I allowed for the possibility of heaven.

In the last 50 years, there has developed a not so subtle resistance to Christianity, usually built on mis-information about what Christianity is really all about, prejudice, negative stereotypes and surprise, surprise, the well publicized bad examples of some.  But, In order to really think outside of the box...the left needs to re-read the history of its own development and re-discover the fact that almost all of its concerns have their roots in the Christian religion.   


See the 100 undemocratic and accountability loopholes and flaws in Canada's federal government (which also exist, with some differences, in every provincial, territorial and municipal government in Canada), on Democracy Watch's website at:

See how to help close the loopholes and correct the flaws at:

and see free lessons on how to work with yourself, and with others, to effectively advocate progressive change, on Democracy Education Network's website at:

Hope this helps, and take care,

Duff Conacher, Founding Board member of Democracy Watch and Democracy Education Network

Principal, consulting

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