Click here to go to the Home Page Cover Story: Everybody, Lean Forward, Now! - Nafsi ya Jamii By Wilson Riles, BC Columnist

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Note: is pleased to welcome Wilson Riles as a columnist.  His work will appear on a regular basis.

Political movements and more narrowly targeted social change projects go through relatively natural evolutions. These dynamics vary depending on the depth of fundamental change sought, the skills and resources available to all sides, the available communications technology including language facility, the social-change-history of the community of concern, and the context and social psychological environment of the contemporaneous time. These are many and powerful variables; they can mask the similarities that might otherwise be visible in the dynamics of social change.

When the 99% ‘leans forward’ from multiple circumstances while being open to our multiple identities by offering solidarity to those pushing against inequity from one or more of their circumstances that we understand, we will all progress.

Perceived scarcity of resources (whether real or imagined) and cultural conflicts are most often the crux of political struggles. Continuous generosity and continuous equity or continuous inequity internal to community rarely erupts into significant political struggle. If folks believe that things are as they have been and as they always will be, folks rarely struggle for change. Cultures rationalize, teach, and massively maintain the status quo.  Even when alternative view points and understandings appear on the scene, most are slow to penetrate individual and/or community consciousness. New patterns of thought are often derived from cultural contexts that are so different…that how they would fit in the present context is very difficult to decipher. That is the way our minds and hearts work; we are in many ways inseparable from culture and community [in the broadest sense]. ‘No man is an island.’ No person is truly an independent individual.

Our emotional “buttons” have been tuned and connected to the “strings” of existent culture.  We are praised for our loyalty and service; we are given authority and a tiny slice of resources above that of others; we may be promised greater equity and inclusion some day if we are ‘good;’ we have generally learned to accept the ongoing cultural rationalization for our inequitable circumstances. Almost always we fear the ambiguity and mystery of new unknown circumstances where there is, also, no guarantee of improvement. We have little direct experience of a better situation actually working out. These thoughts and behaviors are natural and rational.

In the history of political struggles, change agents are frequently rejected insiders, outsiders, and/or the children of the elite. Outsiders can bring a compelling alternative vision and examples of different structures and different intra-community relationships that are said to work. The rejected and the elite’s children generally move from a more individual, personal centered core. All human youth go through a largely natural phase of human maturation that is characterized by juvenile efforts to push conventional boundaries and rebel from parental restrictions (except where this is mitigated by rites of passage ceremonies).  Participants in movements led by outsiders and youth are seduced into a ‘trust the leadership’ scenario which is little different from the subservient positions they want to escape. Such groups tend to be cultish and authoritarian. Movements internal to the community and led by consensually derived goals and tactics which have been internalized by most participants are more sustainable. This community centered dynamic is the insight and importance of Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

In the history of political struggles, change agents are frequently rejected insiders, outsiders, and/or the children of the elite.

Like the Civil Rights Movement, most movements start out with the goal of equitable acceptance into the current structure – integration without fundamental change. Often this slides into substituting another group into the subservient role and applying or switching the rationalization or intensifying the rationalization for inequity onto the new subservient group. Because of the “mark of Cane” – indelible dark skin – this phenomenon has never worked for blacks. It did work for the Irish, the Italians, the Catholics, and others to the extent they were willing to relinquish most of their cultural markers and to the extent that they accepted the rationalization for continued forms of inequity toward others. This is a dynamic process in the women’s movement where integration into the power elite for some has led to continued inequity for mostly women of color. The LGBT movement lingers in the phase where integration without fundamental change is sought. Latinos are being thrust into a caste system by being marked with an illegal alien identity classification. This effort is attempting to substitute de jure designations for de facto skin color designations with similar rationalizations for inequity. Blacks preceded Latinos in a similar fashion. The African American civil rights struggle stalled when confronted with economic inequity and the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.; we are being confronted with a ‘wholesale’ re-designation into the criminal complex caste – huge numbers of mostly black males are marked at their times of youthful-rebellion with a criminal record specifying lifelong classification as a target for inequity. [Blacks can no longer avoid taking on the fundamental economic questions that maintain US racist society.]

Humans have multiple identities contained in one person. We have gender, nationality, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and social economic and generational identities among many more. The movement politics and/or political projects associated with each of these identities are at various stages of development and unfolding. One aspect of our being may experience partial positive integration into the status quo society while another aspect may be generally rejected. Modern movements are fractured, twisted, and isolated by the swirling vagaries of the different movements with which we are associated. We are confronted with being against militarism while supporting the right of gays to serve in the military. We can deeply experience the distastefulness of historical and contemporary occupations while embracing “the occupy movement.” We are grateful that unions contribute big campaign money to politicians – barely holding a small corner in comparison to big corporations – but still oppose the buying and selling of our elections. The moral certainty of our political positions are compromised and complicated; it is hard to find the emotional power of righteousness (community supported righteousness) some have experienced in the past.  We mistake the emotion of ‘unit’ camaraderie for community righteousness.

We can bring this power of community back if we all ‘lean forward’ together, now. We all need to ‘lean forward’ against the inequity that is salient for us. When the 99% ‘leans forward’ from multiple circumstances while being open to our multiple identities by offering solidarity to those pushing against inequity from one or more of their circumstances that we understand, we will all progress.

‘No man is an island.’ No person is truly an independent individual.

The 1% cannot stand because they depend on our un-harmonized fractured personalities, our juvenile reactionary habits, our emotional buttons, our ignorance, and our lack of imagination. When we turn our attention and behavior towards supporting greater equity for everybody, the 1% will be carried along but no longer setting the framing from ‘above.’ There will be no ‘above.’ Know that social change is ‘a path’ not a destination. For the sake of community health and personal sanity, know what some of us have learned: constantly lean forward except for those instances when we must stop to breathe, research, and reflect to throw off the inhibitory cultural memes of the imperialist cultures of the past. We can find the where-with-all by rediscovering the cultural memes from harmonious egalitarian traditional societies and by building new cultural memes that offer equity for all – for the whole of who we are and for the human community in total. This is the meaning of decolonize. Lean forward.

For Mr. Riles, the following is an explanation of the meaning of the Swahili term “Nafsi ya Jamii":

Nafsi ya Jamii is the Swahili phrase that translates in English to "The Soul Community". Real community is the next phase in the process of seeking individual justice through social change. To be guided by the words of Howard Thurman: “Don’t ask what the world needs; ask what makes you come alive, and go do that. What the world needs is people who have come alive.” Maintain a Seven Generations perspective in all that is done; honoring the generations who’ve come before and mindful that our actions will have an impact for the generations who come after. Additionally, recognize that all of us are cultural beings; we include deep cultural understanding and experience in all that is done. Columnist, Wilson Riles, is a former Oakland, CA City Council Member. Click here to contact Mr. Riles.

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June 7, 2012 - Issue 475
is published every Thursday
Est. April 5, 2002
Executive Editor:
David A. Love, JD
Managing Editor:
Nancy Littlefield, MBA
Peter Gamble