- George Lakey has been an activist for over 60 years
- In this interview he calls himself a “practical visionary”
- Lakey says effective activism requires a strategy for achieving the desired change
- It also requires envisioning what the proposed change would look like
While walking on the beach late one night, nineteen-year-old George Lakey had a revelation. At that moment he knew what his life’s purpose would be. Somehow—he didn’t yet know how—he would help social movements bring more peace and justice into the world.
Now 85, the devout Quaker has written Dancing with History, a memoir full of inspiring stories that document his sixty-plus-year journey as an activist. Lakey has led campaigns and movement groups advocating for everything from peace to LGTBQ rights to climate justice. He has been a college professor, an organizer, a trainer, a participant in countless direct-action campaigns, and a writer. This is his eleventh book.
While the memoir recounts personal struggles with domestic turmoil and a scary bout with cancer at the age of 39, it also incorporates plenty of hard-earned lessons for activists.
Lakey self-identifies as what he calls a “practical visionary,” and the importance of fusing vision and strategy in social justice work is a theme that pops up again and again in his writing.
His visionary side was especially evident in an earlier work, Viking Economics, where he suggested a blueprint for a more equitable future in the US. The book chronicles the rise of what economists call the “Nordic Model,” a fusion of capitalism and socialism that has resulted in high living standards and low income disparities in Scandinavian countries.
Yet Lakey’s activism is consistently grounded in down-to-earth practicality. He sees strategy—a pragmatic roadmap of how to get to the envisioned future—as a crucial facet of any social change campaign.
I recently spoke with Lakey about vision and strategy— two key aspects of activism that he says are often overlooked by campaign organizers. (The interview has been edited and condensed.)
A persistent thread running through the stories you relate in your new book is the importance of vision. What is it, and why do you think it’s an essential part of activism?
Lakey: People want to know if there’s change, what is the change—what’s the new state that you want. And so simply being anti-war, which was very popular then, or anti-racism which is very popular now, [is not enough]. You want me to be anti-racist? Well, what does that look like? What does that mean? How that would make things different and better is a very reasonable question for people to ask.
And the mainstream will ask that question over and over. You want a change? Well, what would that look like? So the fact that activists somehow got into a habit of not telling what it will look like is very self-destructive of our efforts.
Black Lives Matter is against outrageous police behavior; police killing us. And every time the natural question in the mainstream is going to be: “And what would you have in its place? How would people keep themselves safe if there weren’t police? So okay, police act out, or police do this or that. What’s your alternative?” And if a movement refuses to do the homework for an alternative, they hardly can expect to win.
One of the things I learned in doing research on the Nordic countries for Viking Economics is—that is one of the brilliant things the Nordic movements did that enabled them to succeed. They didn’t just say, “Oh, isn’t all this poverty horrible?” They said: “Guess what, there’s an economic model that will basically eliminate the poverty. How about that? Whoa, we’re for an economy that would eliminate poverty. How would that work?” And [there was] lots of questioning and lots of discussion: “Well, that does sound much more reasonable than what we’ve got now.”
People do want to be reasonable. The reason why there’s so much unreason right now has to do with the polarization. It’s not our human nature to be unreasonable—it’s what happens when polarization happens. We need to go to the place of reasonableness. And we can’t do that if we don’t have a vision, a description of what it is we would prefer.
In Dancing with History you mention a study book you wrote many years ago with a group of other people. It used a medical analogy to describe a three-step process for curing society’s ills. First you have to know what good health looks like—the vision. Then you need to analyze which disease is causing the problem. And finally, you develop a strategy to cure the disease and restore the patient to good health.
Lakey: That’s right. All three are really needed for success. I spent my life studying social movements; those who succeed and those who fail. And it’s just clear as crystal, the ones that win big are the ones with an analysis of what’s wrong, and who’s getting in the way of the change, so that you get your targets clear. Then, in addition to analysis, a vision, so you can reach the mainstream and suggest the change, the nature of that change, and what it’ll look like. And then the strategy for getting from here (the analysis), to there (the vision). That’s the way to get things done.
Most people do that in their daily life. How many couples have spent time saying wow, wouldn’t it be great to have a better house because in this house, every time there’s a flood, we get flooded. They spend a lot of time analyzing what the problem is with the house. Then they spend tons of time envisioning the kind of house they would love to have, and then they develop a strategy for how to put the money together so that they can get the new house.
That’s what people ordinarily do. So for activists to take an exception to that, to imagine that we can get change by not doing what common sense says you do to get change, is extraordinary. It has to do with the excessive moralism that goes with activist culture.
Folks engage in activism as a morality play, instead of engaging in it as a practical endeavor to actually get justice.
Why do you see strategy as so important? In your memoir you lament the lack of strategic thinking in social change campaigns.
Lakey: It’s so important in social change because it’s so important in getting anything done. People don’t build houses without a strategy. People don’t even raise a family without a strategy. It is totally necessary, in order to achieve a goal, to have a strategy for getting there. “How-to” is just part of life.
Morality appears to be an arena that escapes that. Maybe we can just sit around and call each other racists, and then maybe something good will come out of that. But I don’t see anything good coming out of that. Because it isn’t a strategy. It’s an expression. It’s an expression and a way of blaming. But it’s not a strategy for change. What makes a difference is to have a strategy. So the very fact that people will escape into moralism instead of doing the hard work of strategizing is itself amazing.
Since it’s so crucial, why do you think the strategic element is sometimes neglected?
Lakey: The morality. Some of the people I’ve known to be most moralistic and strategy avoidant have been people who have been people in despair, frankly. People in despair: “It’s hopeless. We’re totally messed up.” Movement cultures can get very, very stuck in this morality play that emphasizes what’s wrong.
If a particular movement or a particular small group of activists gets into a game of who’s holier than who or who’s more depraved than who, then they can avoid the strategy question. A consciousness of depravity turns everything into a morality play instead of actually working for justice and peace.
Dancing with History, A life of Peace and Justice is available from Seven Stories Press.
For a related post, see George Lakey: We Need to be More Revolutionary.
Text by James L. VanHise licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.
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