Taking action requires practice, and that means training for it. Simply put, we have not been training to build the skills necessary for actively evolving the institutions of our civilization — so we are not skilled in the practices needed to do the work.
Most social change organizations are built around the dualistic perspective that separates them from their communities. We will do the work if you give us money in the form of donations to do it for you. This is the basic economic transaction of professional identity politics. Note how it fails to include training people to take effective actions that lead to real and meaningful change in the world.
Why don’t more people “take action” on climate change? Is it that they are afraid of the very idea that their own consumer behaviors are contributing to the death of the biosphere? Or maybe it’s that they simply don’t know what they can do to really make a difference on this complex issue.
What is keeping our citizenries from making democracy work in our own countries? Is it that we were never taught how to identify someone with legitimate expertise and moral character? Or maybe it’s that we don’t know how to take responsibility for our own actions when things are rough.
How do we continue to grow a cancerous economic system when all signs show that it will eventually kill us? Might it be that we just don’t know how to change it? Or maybe it’s that we haven’t built the entrepreneurial skills to create the change ourselves.
My partners at Exile and I have been delving deeply into this inquiry for months now — building on decades of training in the bodily practices each of us has in the martial arts, dance, and athletic performance. What we realized is that it is only through training that one achieves high levels of competence in their craft.
We become great musicians by practicing our scales, building up the muscle memory of our finger movements and breathing, and performing with other musicians who have skills we want to learn.
We become great athletes by taking classes, joining teams, and working with coaches who train us alongside other aspiring athletes to become physically fit, develop effective techniques, and become experienced at playing the games we eventually excel at.
So why is it that civic engagement is treated differently? When it comes to the processes of democracy, we are told that all we need do is show up and vote from time to time or sign the occasional petition. Or perhaps we are asked to share a piece of content on our Facebook wall or show up to hold signs at a protest.
This isn’t training. It is not a pathway to excellence. And it won’t create the changes our societies desperately need in these turbulent times.
Imagine for a moment that social change was an art form. How would someone become a social change artist? They might start out as seekers of knowledge who look at the great artwork of change makers who came before — devouring case studies and documentaries about Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation, the merchants of Venice who created early forms of corporate organization that were later refined by the Dutch and English, those civil rights warriors who fought against systems of oppression, or the educators who teach new techniques that go on to transform entire fields of practice.
But this wouldn’t be enough.
They would then need to seek teachers with whom they can practice the art of social change. They might volunteer with a community organization, create a local campaign of their own, or become an entrepreneur and start a new business. But they wouldn’t do it alone. Their actions would be guided by the skilled leadership of someone more experienced than they are. And they would take actions that didn’t work — failing and struggling often as their bodies became attuned to the practice of interfacing with emotional turmoil, active resistance, squashed dreams, and the pain felt by those around them (and within themselves) who were also in the struggle that had captivated them.
Note how different this is from the classic concepts of Liberal Democracy that tell us everyone has an equal voice because all that matters is identifying with a cause and become part of a special interest group. In that mental model, all that is needed is to give consent. Make an endorsement. Then step aside and let whomever is representing the cause take forth any policy changes that will somehow magically happen afterwards.
Missing in this model is the cultivation of mastery through training and practice. And so also is missing the physical capacity to live out the tensions of struggle, failure and progress that constitute real-world change processes.
I offer that this is the reason more people don’t act on the global convergence of crises humanity is now facing. We simply have not been trained for it and so we don’t know how to do it.
It is time for the trainers to step forth. Humanity needs us.
Onward, fellow humans.