January 21, 2019; Teen Vogue
In an article posted on TeenVogue.com, two professors talk about the terms “reform,” “resistance,” “rebellion,” and “revolution,” and how they might be in play—or even possible—in today’s world. The article itself is remarkable in the frankness with which it covers the need for these activist reactions to what is happening in our society and our world. Given the realities people are facing in our society, and the challenges many nonprofit organizations are trying to help them address, we can use this as a call to nonprofits about how the sector might think of sparking real change.
The two people interviewed are George Ciccariello-Maher and Keeanga-Yamhatta Taylor. Ciccariello-Maher is a writer, political organizer, and visiting scholar at the Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics. “Hemi” was founded at New York University in 1998 and has the “fundamental belief that artistic practice and critical reflection can spark lasting cultural change.” Taylor is an African American Studies professor at Princeton University and the author of From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation and How We Get Free.
Considered the least impactful of the four ideas is “reform,” which includes the very things nonprofits are increasingly encouraged to do: advocate for legislation and get your clients to vote. However, according to the definitions in the article, reform tries to work within the system as it exists to institute the changes desired but not to change the system itself. Ciccariello-Maher cites police wearing body cameras as a response to the riots in Baltimore and Ferguson as an example of the miniscule changes reform brings—ultimately, of little value. In this argument, encouraging clients to vote or become engaged in promoting legislation actually has them supporting the very system that perpetrates the inequity they face.
“Resistance” may be slightly more effective at instituting change, but it is currently diluted to the point that it means simple disagreement and disgruntlement with the Trump administration. Of course, resistance can be more, and that is referred to as the capital-R “Resistance.” Gandhi’s passive resistance, for example, or the Abolish ICE campaign are examples of Resistance—actions people take to build a movement leading to change.
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Nonprofits helping to establish a movement like this, or encouraging their clients to participate in one, can engage in resistance. It is about taking a stand, and marching, for example, along the lines of the “Day Without Immigrants” to protest immigration policies.
Building a movement and changing the consciousness of people over time has a greater chance of instituting change than either reform or resistance, according to the article. With this, we begin to move into the realms of “rebellion” and “revolution.” According to the article, rebellion is certainly more explosive than either reform or resistance and is about moving into a more combative stance. One of the professors describes rebellion as “moments that really crystallize something that needs to be changed and transform consciences of millions of people in a relatively quick period of time.” The demonstrations in Ferguson and Baltimore following the police killings of black men are cited as examples. “Rebellion” is about groups of people rising up in rebellion against some injustice, leading to a new awareness of and consensus around the need for change.
An example of this in the nonprofit sector might be the marches in Madison, Wisconsin to fight Act 10, the legislation that essentially stripped public sector workers and unions of the right to bargain collectively. Even though this article called it a death knell for teachers’ unions, there was a lot of national publicity around the days-long protests around the state capital. In recent months, there have been a number of very successful teachers’ strikes around the country, most recently in Los Angeles. Those strikes seem to have popular support. Is it possible that the publicity around this act of rebellion against Act 10 changed people’s minds?
“Revolution” is a very scary idea to many, eliciting visions of violent clashes in the streets, tyrants and their families having their heads cut off, and more. But if you strip away the violent imagery, according to the professors quoted in the article, what you have is a process of overthrowing the current state of affairs. It is the exact opposite of reform, then, which seeks to work within the system. Should nonprofits foment revolution as the best way to institute the real change our clients need?
In a recent NPQ article, Steve Dubb wrote that nonprofits are usually in the mode of fixing a problem, of plugging holes and filling gaps, which essentially keeps the current system in place. But he also cites that there are examples abounding in which nonprofits are experimenting with ESOPs, platform cooperatives, and other models that might replace a broken capitalist system. Perhaps this is a fifth model, one in which people turn away from unequal systems and begin to create the world in which they want to live. Deborah Frieze’s book Walk Out, Walk On proposes this model and describes examples from around the world.—Rob Meiksins