And we’re always Davids

Yesterday when I was driving to Lawrence for my last class of the spring semester, I heard this writer from The New Yorker on Talk of the Nation. His article (see link below) primarily uses examples from sports and war to make his point that, because underdogs can’t win in a ‘fair fight’ by the established, conventional rules, they are only successful when they are clever and courageous enough to break those rules. I have to admit that I don’t know enough about basketball to totally understand his main analogy of the full-court press, and my military history isn’t much better, but I am very familiar with the story of David and Goliath, and hearing Gladwell talk made me think about advocacy and community organizing. I can’t really imagine any scenarios of social work advocacy when our side isn’t quite a bit like David up against the Goliaths of our day–powerful business interests, anti-social welfare policymakers, oppressive bureaucracies, and the grinding, inexorable status quo. And, from my experience, we are often most successful when we are willing to make our targets a bit uncomfortable by using tactics that fall outside of the traditional conventions:

  • Calling more times than is considered ‘polite’ until a client gets the appointment she needs
  • Showing up at the councilmember’s house when he has repeatedly failed to respond to our requests to meet
  • Bringing clients and their families to legislative hearings, where usually ‘we don’t have children’
  • Insisting that there be language interpreting so that clients can give their testimony in Spanish
  • Targeting the donors of extreme anti-immigrant politicians
  • Having tribal leaders testify comparing Official English policies to the cultural annihilation practiced against native communities (a Senator told me this was ‘cruel and unfair’)

    And from others’ social justice work:

  • Taking action against big-name companies when their suppliers/subcontractors are engaging in unfair labor practices
  • The sit-in strategy against Jim Crow laws (and pretty much all of the nonviolent resistance of the African-American campaign for civil rights)
  • Shareholder actions, particularly as practiced by religious communities in the U.S., where people buy shares in company stock with the express intent of raising social justice issues at shareholder meetings

    There are obviously many more examples; the two key points, I think, are that we recognize our ‘David’ nature and the fact that we’ll have to be smarter, braver, and a bit more audacious than our opponents if we hope to win, since we’ll never be richer or stronger or bigger; and, two, that we recognize that what keeps us, then, from victory is often not our underdog nature (since history is replete with examples of people and causes overcoming that) but our reluctance to break the rules. It is uncomfortable. There were many times when I wished that I could blend in, or get along, a little bit better. But we’re not in social work advocacy to make friends. We’re in it to win the respect, dignity, safety, and liberty for the people with whom we have the honor of going into battle. And our social work skills, relationships, and commitment to cause should be ample ammunition for the slings we have to throw.
    How David Beats Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell

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