Anyone who aspires to create change in the world will of course have Martin Luther King high on their list of heroes, and I am no different. It seems fitting, therefore, to launch the New Citizenship Project with a reflection of what I have learnt from regular re-readings of THAT speech on the occasion of its 50th anniversary.
The first and most obvious learning is the importance of positive vision. Nic Marks of NEF (in his 2010 TED talk about their Happy Planet Index) has perhaps been the most eloquent exponent of this lesson to date – as he puts it in his critique of the environmental movement, “King didn’t motivate change by saying ‘I have a nightmare.'” This is such a truism as to become very easily skipped over today, but it is still an important lesson and one I know I need to keep my sights on. I’ve formalised this under the banner of ‘Appreciative Inquiry’ as a founding principle of the New Citizenship Project – I would rather focus on celebrating and enhancing the positive than cursing the negative.
The second lesson may in this light seem a little contrary, but I think is compatible. Referring back to the speech itself, we find that it is not all dreams and visions. Indeed, it begins with a searing and violent indictment of the existing state of affairs, the “bad cheque” of the Emancipation Proclamation, and moves swiftly into an outright challenge to the government: “There will be neither rest nor tranquillity in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights…” It is easy to forget if you only recall the headline that this was the speech of a righteously angry man, not a flowing, easy, marketing-style vision of a positive future. For me, lesson two is that you must always understand the essence of the problem before solving it. Yes, we should seek positivity and describe a vision; but this is entirely commensurate with honesty in facing into the scale of the challenges you face.
Lesson three is then about the nature of the vision. I think one of the great dangers of some of the ‘positive vision’ reflections on the speech is the tendency to think of it as having created a specific, almost tangible visualisation of the possible future that the crowd could then go forth to bring about. This is not what King did. His speech was about ideals and principles, made understandable through the use of examples, not about a definitive future – when he spoke of his four children living “in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character”, he did not describe how that change would come about or how it would look in practice (in schools, for example) in practice.
This speaks to something that those who desire change in the world, and particularly in our economic system, encounter all too often. When the current system is criticised, the response is too often, “so how should it work?” – and not just at a level of principle, but in expectation of a fully developed alternative economic certainty, as if that is what we have at present. This of course is impossible. We cannot design a fully functional globally sustainable and equitable economy in a theoretical model any more than King could have designed the economic transitions made essential by civil rights, or Wilberforce those brought about by the end of slavery. But that does not excuse us from making the shift. We must be prepared to establish principles, do what is right, and then make the function come.
Taken together, these three build the true lesson for me of the ‘I have a dream’ speech: that the most powerful motivation for change comes from a shared voyage to a desired destination, but through an uncertain course, willingly entered into together in the face of serious challenge.
I have started the New Citizenship Project because I believe we have a systemic barrier to this kind of change in Western society today, in the fact that the mood music of our society tells us we are Consumers not Citizens. In so doing, we make change impossible. Consumers do not participate in uncertainty, but are the end recipients of certainty. Only by putting our hands up as Citizens, willing to take part in a grand adventure rather than simply ‘vote-purchase’ the political party who promises most credibly to solve our immediate problems, will we truly rise to the challenge of making the world a better place.
In that spirit – I’m just at the beginning of this particular adventure and I’ve no idea where exactly it will go – but anyone is more than welcome to join in!
Since this is the inaugural post on the New Citizenship Project blog, a couple of very quick housekeeping bits seem in order… do check out the about and principles pages to get a sense of where this thinking is coming from, and find me on twitter or linkedin if you want to know more. Oh, and just so you know, BBC Radio 4 are doing a broadcast of the speech with some amazing voices on Wednesday 28th August 2013 at 0900. I’ll be listening.