Active Culture

Acting in the Big Picture

New study guide builds on history, hope.

Linda Pinkow

This article is from the November/December 2007 issue of Dollars & Sense: The Magazine of Economic Justice available at http://www.dollarsandsense.org/archives/2007/1107pinkow.html


issue 273 cover

This article is from the November/December 2007 issue of Dollars & Sense magazine.

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Social change requires a large number of open-minded, concerned people to develop into highly committed, effective activists. Agents of change need a foundation of knowledge, a theoretical framework that integrates this knowledge, and the practical skills to conduct a long-term struggle for change.

Too many of us have built the foundation and the framework, but haven't been able to make the leap to effective action.

"One of the problems in our society is that we're really disempowered. We're not taught to be citizens. We're taught to be spectators, and watch the world go by, and watch the powerful people make decisions and impose them on us," said Randy Schutt, one of the creators of a new online "study/action" program.

START (Study, Think, Act, Respond Together) was inspired by a project called the Macro-Analysis Seminars, started in the 1970s by a Philadelphia-based Quaker group, Movement for a New Society. The seminars were "developed by folks who realized that they were working on different social issues, but they weren't looking at the common roots. People were working on housing or people were working on civil rights, and they said, 'Gosh, we need to really get at the root of this and see the big picture if we're going to be really effective in making social change,'" according to Pamela Haynes, one of those folks and now co-creator of the START program. The 1970s group developed a study guide with readings on a broad range of subjects, and in 1981, with a mimeograph machine and "a lot of hard work," published a booklet, Organizing Macro-Analysis Seminars: Study & Action for a New Society.

Schutt participated in two of the Macro-Analysis Seminars that sprang up all over the country. He had been an activist for a few years by then, and has been an activist ever since, as well as the author of "Inciting Democracy: A Practical Proposal for Creating a Good Society" (www.vernalproject.org). A few years ago, Schutt contacted the creators of the Macro-Analysis Seminars to propose creating a new online study course, and Haynes signed on. They agreed on the importance of integrating analysis with action. "[We are] really trying to encourage and help people get together and figure out how to talk with each other, and disagree, and cooperate ... and then work together to really do useful things that will transform the society, rather than just whining and getting upset and throwing shoes at the television," Schutt said. "You basically get together a dozen friends in your living room, and get the reading materials, and read the materials and talk to each other and then think about, OK, how could we go out and actually begin to change this?"

The free, noncommercial website, www.startguide.org, offers an intricately detailed blueprint for conducting a START course, though of course any group is free to deviate from the suggested readings, agendas, and strategies. The 24-week-long syllabus leads participants to educate themselves about social, economic, political, and cultural problems, devise strategies for hope and change, and then implement those strategies together. The guide has links to thousands of free readings about political and economic issues, from websites as diverse as Mothers for Clean Air and Dollars & Sense. "Everybody reads different materials, so when you come into the process you have something unique to contribute," said Schutt.

But before any studying, a START group starts with two weeks of introductions to share one another's hopes for the process, build mutual trust, and individualize the structure of the course. The syllabus explicitly tackles the perennial problems of group process. Participants get detailed advice on how to work together so the meetings "don't bog down into people ranting at each other, and the talkative people talking a whole lot, and everybody else being quiet," said Schutt. So participants learn techniques of egalitarian process while they learn theories of social justice.

The organizers emphasize that the course is suitable for longtime activists as well as novices of all ages. "I think that we're never beyond a time when it would be really useful to be with a group of people and have some common base of knowledge and then just sit down and think, 'Well what does this mean? What can we do?'" Haynes said. "Hopefully it will get people hopeful, together, and in motion."

Linda Pinkow is development and promotions coordinator at Dollars & Sense.

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