How can a single individual change the hearts and minds of thousands of people? How does one confront violent opposition with peaceful protest and bring about a transformation of beliefs? How can one person change the world?
Scott Sherman, the founder of the Transformative Action Institute, gave an inspiring lecture recently at the Positive Psychology Center at University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Sherman has spent his career working on grassroots projects dedicated towards nonviolence and social justice. Over the course of his career, he has observed that many of the people who take up these kinds of causes end up burning out before they are able to achieve any lasting change. I walked away from the meeting thinking that simply understanding the mechanisms behind strengths of hope, persistence, wisdom, and compassion is critical for teaching people how to foster change in the world.
Fighting Powers that Be
Traditionally, the way to activate social change has been to “fight the powers that be” (Public Enemy, 1989). Tactics are often designed to embarrass and humiliate those who are in power until the negative PR is so great that they are forced to recognize and respond to the cause. These traditional methods not only seem to have a high burnout rate, but they also do not necessarily yield the best results. With a tradition of “us versus them,” someone has to win and someone has to lose. Since these social justice causes are usually examples of the weak fighting against the powerful, more often than not, the powerful win. In cases where the activists do succeed, they often leave bitterness and resentment in their wake, motivating the powerful to suppress their causes again in the future.
Sherman wanted to understand the difference between the many activists that end up hopeless and burnt out and those few that somehow are able to be persistent in their cause and eventually create the change they were seeking. He analyzed a variety of activist causes including social equality, racial justice, environmental protection, and non-violence to learn what worked and what did not. The traditional teachings of social activism did not seem to work, and the things that did work were not being taught anywhere. He found that the most successful strategy for effecting lasting change is a confluence of nonviolence (as exemplified and taught by Gandhi and Martin Luther King) and the teachings of positive psychology.
The principles that Sherman identified for effective social change were covered previously in PPND by Kathryn Britton, but because they are so powerful, I’ll briefly mention them again:
- Speak the truth to power. You have to expose injustice, wherever you may find it. You cannot sit by silently and allow injustice to happen. As Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once said, “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.”
- Social aikido. Transform enemies into allies. Transform hatred into goodwill. Transform conflict into collaboration.
- Rather than telling people they are wrong, offer them a better vision. Programs should be constructive, offering positive alternative courses of action.
Three New Methods for Transforming our World
There were also three new methods that came out of the lecture, or things that we can all do to transform ourselves and the world around us:
- “If you don’t like the news . . . go out and make some of your own!” Wes “Scoop” Nisker, the Northern Californian newscaster who worked mainly in the 70’s created this catchy slogan in the newsroom. Sherman has been using this slogan as a call to action. Half the battle is taking that first step of getting involved. Rather than sitting at home and complaining about all the things that are wrong in the world, look for ways that you can get involved and start creating a story about the world that you will be proud of.
- Network. Networking is something that we can all do, and the increasing availability of social networking tools makes this easier than ever before. Share your vision of an ideal world with your entire network. The great thing about networking is anyone can do it and it can be started immediately. One way to “be the change you wish to see in the world” (Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi) is to vocalize and model your vision of a better world to as many people as possible.
- Reach out to your heroes. If there are people that you admire because they are making a difference in the world, then reach out to them and make contact. The worst that can happen is you don’t get through, but you’d be surprised how accessible your heroes might actually be. Scott shared with us some wonderful stories of his experiences finding and meeting both Mother Teresa and the Dalai Lama.
Sherman now dedicates himself to teaching people how to be effective as a visionary, as an innovator, as a social entrepreneur, and as a problem solver. He is teaching these principles within his program of “transformative action,” geared towards driving both personal and social transformation. It is exciting to see Scott’s passion as he talks about training students in the art of world transformation. And he is not doing it alone. Scott has created the Transformative Action Institute in order to share his techniques with the world as far and as fast as possible. You can visit the Transformative Action Institute website to educate yourself on the principles of social entrepreneurship, and can look for new ways to apply positive psychology to make a difference in the world.
Louis Brandeis (2008, December 5). Retrieved In Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Retrieved December 7, 2008, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Louis_Brandeis.
Mohandas Karamchan Gandhi (2008, December 5). Retrieved In Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Retrieved December 7, 2008 from http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Mohandas_Karamchand_Gandhi.
Nisker, W. (1994). If you don’t like the news . . . go out and make some of your own. Berkeley, CA: Ten Speed Press.
Public Enemy (1989). Fight the power. In Spike Lee (Director), Do the right thing.