I spoke at the Penn State University Harrisburg campus earlier this week, as the kick off to their annual Martin Luther King Jr. Lecture Series. During the Q&A, a student asked me if it was better to work from the outside or the inside of systems. Where can you make the most change? Real change requires both intelligence and negotiation from the inside, as well as pushing, pushing and more pushing from the outside. I think each of us has to choose based on an honest (that gets easier with age and/or meditation) assessment of where our talents and temperament will thrive the best, where we will be the most effective as who we really are.
But once you’re in either place, you have to commit yourself, at least long enough to see what’s possible. And you can’t complain about the things you don’t have because you’re not in the other role. So, all those elected officials can’t be moaning about how the radical organizations in their community don’t understand them, or don’t give them enough credit, or don’t get how hard it is to make “real change.” It’s our job to push you past those excuses, even if they’re grounded in reality.
And those who chose the outside can’t worry about how we don’t get mainstream recognition, or mainstream money, or mainstream friends. We’re an opposition movement for a reason. This student had the impression that all of our Civil Rights leaders had been assassinated, and I had to say, not everybody died. Being on the outside can be punishing, but many activists manage it for entire lifetimes. And going inside doesn’t always protect you from harm.
For myself, the outside suits best. I get energy from the fight and I don’t have whatever it takes to be a good public official or university administrator. But I sure appreciate all those people in such positions who have fed me critical information and who have complicated my sense of what happens after we win (usually a whole new set of problems emerge, but new problems are good). In an ideal situation, progressive people work in concert from their respective positions. If they badmouth each other, it’s by mutual strategic agreement. As in, I’ll take this radical position to drag the political spectrum to the left, so you can take a slightly less radical position and look reasonable. When people on the inside support an outside demand, as does the National Association of Admissions Counselors on the DREAM Act, it has an extra punch. The Right has got this down pat, as we can see in this timeline of the tea party.
Of course, this is not to say some of us don’t spend time in both spaces, especially if we succeed in making some “real change” from the outside. Van Jones knows a lot about this, and has put out a call for everybody, wherever we are situated, to take national the amazing and seemingly isolated organizing in Wisconsin. Assert labor rights, effective government and the morality of regulating greed with protests in front of all 50 statehouses this Saturday. Do it from your own angle (I like the racial justice one) and support other peoples’ angles too (the gay, the poor, the female). If you can’t get to your statehouse, I’m sure City Hall will do.