In Spring 2011, the wave of political resistance across the Middle East has gotten the world’s attention. Clearly, there are leaders that have been in office way too long and it’s time for them to go, but I’m concerned that the media has been so enthralled by all the “hype” (including using cell phones to organize protests) that they aren’t asking very critical questions about what it all means. Namely, is real social change and conflict transformation going to happen via protest? In my view, that’s a last step, not the first. Susan Glisson at the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation perhaps says it best: “The need for such locally focused, community-based conversations is tied to a basic principle of social change: effective social change occurs by focusing on local issues, using grassroots, nonviolent strategies.These first steps are followed by careful analysis of the problems and negotiation with stakeholders who can make a difference. Massive protests are actually a final step when all previous work has failed, not a first-strike response. In the absence of such work on the ground, massive protests fail.” A house won’t stand without a foundation.
Don’t get me wrong, social protests can be a tool for political change in the short term, but I think one has to look down the road for the success rate. The Orange Revolution in the Ukraine in 2004 brought democratic elections, but did it stem corruption, bridge ethnic-linguistic divisions, or lead to significant social and economic development? I’m not an expert on Ukraine, but I don’t think so. Protests may be one tool in the toolbox, but just one. We need to think so much bigger. It’s the longer-term building of relationships and trust that are going to create the social cohesion necessary to move societies beyond “us vs. them” dynamics which, one way or the other, ultimately fail. Creating community-based conversations about what matters is much harder work, which is why I suppose it doesn’t get that much attention. It’s not “sexy,” but it’s critical.
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