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The pandemic killed human community
How we can bring it back
In my first 5 or so years as an activist, I believed that logic and evidence would be enough to win people over to a cause. Whether it was false convictions of people on death row, or the burgeoning climate crisis, it seemed the reasons for change were overwhelming. Yet, as I have lectured on many occasions, this turns out not to be the case. Sound reasoning doesn’t seem to change people.
There are plenty of reasons for this – the human bias for the status quo; preference falsification; and the massive credibility gap that most activists suffer from – but one of the most important is simply that human beings are social animals. We rely less on reason and more on social cues to determine the right course of action.
It was when I made this realization, backed by decades of social science, that I almost completely pivoted my activism towards an organizing model. It matters less what people know, it turns out, than who they know. So if we are going to make change, we need people to be connected to the movement, and not just the movement’s ideas. I spent years building my confidence and skill as a community organizer. And it turned out, surprisingly, that not only did I have a knack for it, but that it massively improved my personal life. I had friends, close relationships, and a sense of camaraderie for the first time in my life. That has only grown stronger in the 15 years or so since I first became a community organizer.
Then COVID-19 hit.
The data is still being worked out. But both the number and quality of human relationships appears to have dropped tremendously as a result of the separation induced by pandemic life. Accompanying that isolation has been an unprecedented increase in mental illness, especially among those younger than 30. This has been particularly destructive towards social movements, which already suffer from social disapproval by large segments of the population. The net result is that activist groups of all sorts that I have witnessed, across the country, have suffered tremendously. (This is true even of movements that seemingly have had momentary success; witness the massive mobilizations for Black Lives Matter in the summer of 2020, followed by a seeming complete abandonment of the movement’s agenda in 2021.)
So what can be done?
Just as I realized that reason-based activism failed 15 years ago, I’ve now realized that community-based organizing will fail without something just as important: a shared commitment and identity. It’s not enough for a movement to be focused on connection. It has to be focused on creating structures to foster, strengthen, and heal those connections when the many forces that tear us apart – COVID being just one powerful example – do their work. Here are some things we can do, as the pandemic lifts, to ensure that those structures build the foundation for social change.
Recruit and train leaders who have both the attribute and skill to sustain community. I (and other leaders in the movement) have massively under-appreciated the organizing skills that are probably most important to community health growth. Openness to new people and ideas. Tolerance of criticism and disagreement. Assumptions of good faith. Confidence in the goodness of ordinary people – and the ability to elicit goodness even where it’s hard to find. There’s a wide cluster of attributes this world desperately needs more of, but especially in movement leaders. We can roughly describe these skills as "connection-builders.”
Create a strong set of values around connection-building, so even those who lack a community temperament or skillset can see models for movement-building behavior. When in Rome, humans generally do as the Romans do. And the same is true of activists. It’s absolutely fascinating to see the most angry (and often out-of-control) activists suddenly fall into line with the tone of nonviolence when they join a protest with a critical mass of nonviolent activists. The same, I think, is true of good community values. If there are a sufficient number of leaders modeling connection-building, an entire movement will start aligning itself with those practices and values.
Focus on relationships, and not campaigns or even mobilization, as the key goal of a movement. When I started as an animal rights activist, I thought our north star was consumer change. I counted how many vegans I was making, and then was disturbed when the change I thought I was creating almost invariably was lost, as people gave up on their personal consumer commitments. Then I moved towards a more thoughtful, mobilization-based goal. The research shows, I thought, that we need more activists, so let’s focus not on how many consumers we’ve made but how many people we’ve inspired to take action. But that, too, has limitations. Focusing on the activists in isolation is sort of like trying to understand biology by looking at individual atoms. Social systems, like biological systems, cannot be reduced to their most fundamental individual parts because it is the relationship between those parts, and not the parts alone, that drive change in the system. Building healthy and strong relationships, I have concluded, is key to a healthy, strong, and growing movement.
Devise new methods to measure relational goals. It’s fine and good to say that the key goal of a movement is to improve the number and quality of relationships. But how does one measure this, especially at scale? The answer, I think, is that we just have to start asking people. I once spoke with a star Stanford economist, who was doing cutting edge research on the intersection of social networks and economics. He was trying to understand, from what I can recall, how innovation spread through a community in less developed countries. And they were running into struggles in trying to collect the data. Then he realized something astonishingly simple: sometimes, you just need to ask people. And it turned out that, when he asked people how the information was spreading, he was able to collect and then verify the data that showed exactly what he was looking for. We should do the same as activists. We should start our organizing structures by explaining to people how important relational health is to a movement, then ask them to tell us how they’re feeling about it. Even if many folks don’t answer, as long as we get some information – and it’s representative of the people who don’t answer – we’ll have a good and rough metric for a movement’s relational progress.
The devil, as always, is in the details. But this is going to be a focus of mine over the next few years. This does not mean that I’ll be giving up on more “traditional” forms of direct action such as protest and rescue. Those actions often have an important impact on relational health, especially to the extent they build bonds of solidarity. But focusing on those actions, before we have a solid relational foundation, is like building a house on sand.
And especially as we come out of COVID, it’s time for us to build a foundation upon which a movement can solidly grow.