By Nora Callahan, Executive Director, November Coalition
long ago, on an e-list where online leaders bat ideas around
and discuss our projects, there was for a day or two what might
be described as a "heated" discussion which took place
as we hammered out one of our latest projects. Before long, raw
feelings were exposed around what I went on to describe to online
leaders as power, ego, self-interest, and conflict, and it seems
some people experienced discomfort around possible compromise.
In 1997 my nephew, Tyree, gave me a book called Rules for
Radicals by Saul Alinsky (1909-1972). This book is Alinsky's
summation of his experiences as a veteran community organizer.
One of his chapters is named 'A Word about Words,' explaining
to us how passions of mankind have boiled over into all areas
of political life, including its vocabulary. Words may be loaded
with scorn and reproach, bring shame or disgrace, and apparent
disrespect. Discoloration attaches to words prevalent in the
language of politics, and it is within this context that Alinsky
pauses "for a word about words" -words such as power,
self-interest, compromise, ego and conflict.
I shared this old lesson with our community leaders over the
emotional e-list, knowing as I wrote them that I'd pass these
same words on to those who work with volunteers and friends on
issues of social justice.
All or any words may make us squirm, even if just a little. Think
about yourself as I often do - our shared journey into activism,
organizing the loved one's of drug war prisoners. The negatives
attached to these words should encourage soul searching as we
read them, but it's worthwhile to look at what these words really
When we say, "Let's harness the energy," it's simply
a more comfortable way to say, "Let's get power." Why
dilute the meaning by using purifying synonyms. Yes! Power to
the people. What is not genuine or necessary about that desire?
Self-interest, like power, wears the black shroud of negativism
and suspicion. Confusion arises when the synonym for self-interest
is interpreted mostly as selfishness. Thus, to have self-interest
is unfairly associated in many a mind with things that are repugnant,
bad, and even mean. But when our organization was forming, and
I had to convince people who showed interest in helping - it
was self-interest that motivated me.
I want to get my brother, Gary Callahan, released from sickening
injustice and home from prison. I grew desperate after realizing
there is no justice in the war on drugs, and so - self-serving,
I went the next step. It didn't take long to figure out that
to serve myself I'd have to find and help unite a lot of other
self-serving people - ordinary folks like me who wanted their
loved ones home.
When the word compromise is uttered, do you unconsciously and
quickly conger up images of betrayal of ideals, surrender of
moral principles? For a woman to lose her virginity was once
called a "compromised" woman. Take another look, and
you will see compromise to be a key word in our struggle. If
it is true that we work for a free and open society, that suggests
we live in a constant state of conflict, interrupted periodically
by compromises. If we can't have compromise - are we not totalitarian?
A free and open society is assumed to appreciate and embrace
the word compromise.
Ego - don't we just hate the mention of it? But for the woman
or man involved in struggle, it takes complete self-confidence
to win, or the battle is lost before it is even begun. Ego, Alinsky
urges us, should not be confused with "egotism", that
human quality revealed by flashes of arrogance, vanity, impatience
and contempt. Ego is simply an unreserved confidence in one's
ability to accept without fear or worry that the odds are always
against us. Having this common understanding of ego, he or she
is a 'doer' and does. The thought of "copping out"
never stays with him for more than a fleeting moment; life is
Conflict ought not to cause us discomfort
either; for embracing conflict is the path to resolution. It
is an essential core of a free and open society, and the essential
ingredient for what follows failure: success. If one were to
project the democratic way of life - or the democratic way that
our Coalition grows - in the form of a musical score, its major
theme might be the harmony of dissonance. It is this harmony
of dissonance, building, growing, and learning that that will
lead to justice and freedom for those we love.
In love and struggle,