They’re not apathetic; we’re off-base

It’s almost an axiom among those of us who consider ourselves activists, right?

They (read: those who didn’t come to our meeting, or won’t share our links on Facebook, or don’t have a sign in their yard) just don’t care.

They’re apathetic. Or ignorant. Or confused.

Except, most probably, they’re not.

I’ve long believed that the real answer to getting people engaged with social change struggles is to find an issue that really connects with them. You can’t tell me that people who will take a day of work with no pay to stand in the snow for 5 hours, because they’re so mad that the law changed and they can’t get driver’s licenses are apathetic. I won’t believe you.

So, when people don’t show up to whatever we, in good faith, organize, I argue that it’s probably our fault.

Maybe we’re the ones who really wanted to have that meeting, and there wasn’t an authentic demand for action from people. Maybe we haven’t made a clear connection between the action we want people to take and the change that they can expect to result. Maybe we haven’t helped them to claim their own power, so they have a hard time understanding why it makes any difference if they show up or not. Maybe the issues that we think matter the most aren’t those that most immediately resonate.

Or maybe all of the above.

That’s why I love this story from iconic organizer Shel Trapp, co-founded of the National Training and Information Center (that’s old-school Chicago-style organizing, for us social work types). You should read the excerpt, because I doubt I can do it justice, but the essence is this:

An organizer goes door-to-door in a neighborhood trying to get people excited about working on school reform, because the local school was woefully overcrowded and neglected. No one was anything more than polite, and he was discouraged. He switched tactics, then, and started asking people what their greatest concerns were. It took awhile, but, finally, one woman expressed her frustration with the shopping carts that people took from the local supermarket and left all around the neighborhood. She felt they were a blight and a nuisance. The organizer was perplexed, at first, then incredulous–with everything going on around them, how could they identify the shopping carts as the greatest priority?

Still, a growing number of people kept coming to the meetings to talk about what to do about the shopping carts, and an action at the grocery store resulted in a victory: poles in front of the store to keep the carts from leaving the property.

At the celebration, a woman turned the conversation to the overcrowding at the school. Emboldened, empowered, and heard for the first time, they were ready to tackle the next fight.

So low turnout, or lack of enthusiasm among those we are seeking to organize, should cause us to look in the mirror. Could it be that we’re trying to sell issues that they’re not interested in buying, at least not right now? Could it be that we’re guilty of the same sins of which we accuse our targets–taking our communities for granted, expecting them to acquiesce to someone else’s agenda, and blaming them for acting in completely understandable ways?

Does anyone have a “shopping cart story” of their own to share? A moment when shifting your perspective helped you to connect more meaningfully with those with whom you were working? An anecdote of when apathy was revealed to be something else entirely?

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2 responses to “They’re not apathetic; we’re off-base

  1. Great story. Thanks for sharing!

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